Illinois expands childcare benefits to tackle labor shortage

Politics

DECATUR, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — As several red states restrict enhanced unemployment benefits to prod workers back to their jobs, Illinois is expanding government benefits to offer more affordable childcare for parents whose routines were disrupted during the pandemic.

“I think it is a Republican right-wing talking point that says that people are just choosing to be lazy to stay home to get the extra few hundred dollars while they can,” Governor J.B. Pritzker (D-Illinois) said at a press conference in Decatur on Tuesday afternoon.

Starting on July 1st, Illinois will offer expanded childcare assistance. Families at or below the poverty line will only have to pay one dollar per month for child care services. The expanded program will also cap childcare costs at 7% of household income for everyone else, and will expand the pool of families who qualify for childcare assistance from 225% of the federal poverty line up to 250%.

Pritzker said the expanded childcare benefits program will be permanent, making “Illinois among the best states in the nation in our support of childcare needs for moderate income families.”

“How many stores that we go to have ‘Help Wanted’ signs,” state representative Sue Scherer (D-Decatur) asked at the press conference. “Well, the reason there’s a help wanted sign is because the worker can’t come to work. The worker can’t come to work because they can’t find childcare. And it is just this vicious circle.”

Decatur’s mayor Julie Moore-Wolfe said there are more than 2,000 open jobs in Macon County right now.

“I’m hoping that people flock to the websites and start signing up and applying for jobs,” she said, “because we need you back in our grocery stores and we need you back in our factories.”

The jobs website Monster.com said Illinois employers posted 155,472 new job openings in the last 30 days.

“The most common reasons that candidates are hesitant to return to the workforce are health and safety protocols at work, childcare concerns including flex and remote work, and enhanced unemployment payments,” said Scott Blumsack, Monster’s SVP of research and insights.

According to the website’s data, the most common job openings are in warehouses, manufacturing, retail, sales, customer service, and nursing. A spokesperson for the jobs website Indeed.com said job postings are 30.36% higher today than they were in February of 2020.

The most recent labor statistics show unemployment levels sit at 6.7% in Illinois, which is improved from last month. The figures show 436,789 people in Illinois continue to collect an extra $300 each week in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation in addition to regular state unemployment insurance.

Staffing agencies are struggling to fill thousands of open jobs across the state.

J.T. Britton, a franchise owner at Express Employment Professionals in Springfield, says his firm has more than 100 job openings that they can’t fill. In many cases, he says workers crunch the numbers and end up turning down job offers.

“The jobs we have that pay anywhere from $14 to $15 an hour don’t pay enough compared to the unemployment they’re getting,” Britton said. “We need to flip it and actually start paying people to go to work instead of paying people to stay off work.”

“The government is not paying people to stay home,” Pritzker said. “In fact, the vast majority of people who are getting those benefits are not staying home because they’re lazy because they don’t want to get a job. They’re staying home in part because they can’t get childcare.”

Some states have started offering one-time bonus incentives to entice workers to get back to work.

“Our data doesn’t show enough information to answer whether there is any evidence that states offering ‘Return to Work’ bonuses are seeing a surge of workers returning to their posts,” Blumsack said.

However, work conditions and flexible options are other factors that weighs on the minds of job applicants after the pandemic.

“Remote jobs continue to be one of the most popular searches on Monster, and as more and more people consider a flex schedule or hybrid work model, employers will have to consider these options in order to attract quality candidates,” he said. “Similarly, as more states eliminate enhanced unemployment and offer other incentives, we anticipate an uptick in job seekers looking for jobs online.”

Many workers in the service industry have been leery to return to work for low pay or poor treatment from belligerent or impatient customers. Many employers are starting to offer higher wages or one-time bonuses to lure workers back to the job.

A working mother who recently re-entered the workforce after finding childcare says getting people back to work may take more than a government sponsored incentive.

“I think that job is on the employer along with customers,” Zamira Manns said. “We have to take accountability. Just because someone works in McDonald’s drive thru does not make them less valuable.”

“This is a lesson learned for the entire world,” she said. “Not just employers, but us as people, to treat everybody with the same respect, the janitor and the CEO with the same exact respect.”

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