At jobs hearing, grim statistics, frustration, cries for help

At jobs hearing, grim statistics, frustration, cries for help

A special legislative hearing held today in Chicago started with a grim set of numbers. Like this one: The overall unemployment rate in Illinois stood at 10.3 percent last year, an analyst from the Illinois Department of Employment Security told members of the Illinois House of Representatives' Small Business Empowerment and Workforce Development Committee.

Unemployment rates by different demographic groups showed how the recession has had a disproportionate impact on minority populations in Illinois. For African-American men and women, the analyst went on, the tally stood at 21.9 percent and 14.4 last year; for white men and women, it was 10.2 percent and 7.8 percent. Just less than 13 percent of both Hispanic men and women were jobless.

The data set the tone for much of the rest of the session. The hearing was called by committee chair state Rep. LaShawn Ford and attended by Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the city, downstate and the Chicago suburbs. Policy advocates, nonprofit staffers and everyday Chicagoans described their frustration with the lack of employment opportunities and a range of related issues.

"It is now time for a Marshall Plan for the black community," said Robert Lower from an organization called United for Better Communities.

"I have never seen it worse than right now," Richard Reeder, who works with Youth Connection Charter School, about the youth jobs situation in minority communities.

Here's what Sebastian Longstreet, 20, a youth worker at the Peace Corner in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, had to say about the people, old and young, who arrive at his organization, looking for work:

Long-simmering frustrations bubbled up during the hearing. Mike Neal, who described himself as a small-business consultant, said construction unions needed to allow more minorities to join. "I'm not antiunion," he said. "I'm just pro us working." Earlier during the hearing a speaker from the Laborers' Union said his organization had opened a training center in Chicago to allow more city youth to learn trades.

Vetress Boyce of the Greater Lawndale Black Chamber of Commerce attended the hearing to advocate for ex-offenders looking for work. These guys are convicted for a lifetime because of the felony," she said.

Some speakers said that how policy makers and lawmakers respond to the job deficit in Chicago and elsewhere around the state will be hampered by the stress on public-sector budgets at various levels of government.

"The workforce development system ... is at best stretched right now. At worst it's disappearing," said Carrie Thomas, associate director of the Chicago Jobs Council, due to a pullback in federal dollars. And the state budget situation, Thomas told the committee, "has further weakened community-based service delivery."

Thomas commended House Bill 2927, which amends the Illinois Emergency Employment Development Act. The legislation has made it through the Illinios General Assembly and now awaits Gov. Pat Quinn's signature.

The amendments would have the state promote jobs for unemployed Illinoisians who are not receiving and not qualified to receive unemployment insurance or workers' compensation. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity would continue subsidizing 50 percent of the wages for such workers at for-profit businesses and, under the new amendments, 75 percent at nonprofits. New language in the bill would require participating employers to match the state subsidy.

"We need to do direct job creation," Thomas said, with the unemployment rate so high.

© Community Renewal Society 2011

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