SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (IRN) — A scathing report is exposing how unprepared the Illinois Department of Employment Security was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Better Government Association, a non-partisan watchdog group, said IDES was suffering from staffing shortages well before the flood of over 2 million jobless claims rolled in.

The report claims Governor J.B. Pritzker held off filling top vacancies in the department because he was planning to merge it with another state department. Then in March, as the governor shut down businesses and Illinois workers flooded the state for jobless benefits, the Department of Employment Security was nowhere near ready to handle the task, the report says.

Pritzker has blamed the Rauner administration for gutting the agency, but senior investigative reporter David Jackson said it actually began under Gov. Pat Quinn.

“The agency had been at about 1,960 employees in 2010 a year after Quinn took over and by the time he turned it over to Rauner there were about 1,300 employees,” Jackson said.

IDES has been plagued with delays in processing initial claims, problems that still exist months after the pandemic began. The report said in recent months, IDES has issued around 1 percent of its unemployment checks within 7 days of the initial application, making it the slowest state in the country.

The BGA report cites a March 14 email that shows the acting head of IDES sounding the alarm and pleading with Deputy Gov. Dan Hynes for some help. The report also claims in June, the understaffed agency told a senate oversight panel, in writing, that it moved jobless claims that came through elected officials to “the front of the line” over applications that came directly from taxpayers.

Kayleen Carlson, president of the organization Illinois Rising Action, said the governor was slow to respond.

“It took Governor Pritzker three weeks to dedicate one of his daily COVID-19 press conferences to issues that were going on at IDES,” Carlson said. “This has been going on for months and months. This is under Governor Pritzker’s watch and his watch alone.”

A request for comment from IDES went unanswered.

By KEVIN BESSLER for the Illinois Radio Network