State task force urges government, businesses to unite behind ‘quality jobs’

The report from a 36-member panel says Illinois could be a national leader if it encourages creation of jobs with pay and benefits that can help workers support families.

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A hiring notice posted at a Lowe’s home improvement store in Northbrook.

A hiring notice posted at a Lowe’s home improvement store in Northbrook. A state task force’s report said the pandemic showed the importance of “essential” workers in retail, health care and other sectors where wages and benefits can be low.

Associated Press

The job market in Illinois will continue to polarize, with most growth in high- and low-wage occupations, increasing the need for government and the private sector to support work with family-sustaining benefits, a bipartisan task force established by the state Legislature said Tuesday.

The 36-member panel said Illinois could “be a national leader in aligning business and worker needs through defining and enhancing job quality.” It said state government should realign its grants in workforce training and other programs to support jobs with benefits such as health insurance and family leave policies.

The panel’s report sidestepped the issue of mandates on the private sector but called on companies to implement such innovations as “portable” benefits that people can carry from one job to the next and paying workers a subsidy for commuting costs.

“Certainly, there is a real call to the consciousness of the private sector to encourage best practices,” said a task force member, Robert Bruno, labor professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “The state can be a partner either by mandating certain practices or providing other forms of incentives.”

Underlying the recommendations is a call on state government to improve data collection on the pay and benefit levels in the private sector.

Misuzu Schexnider, program director at the University of Chicago’s Inclusive Economy Lab, said the pandemic has accentuated the importance of workers in the care and service sectors, which are growing but often have lower wages and difficult working conditions.

She said a broad consensus could develop around better pay and benefits. “Improving job quality is also great for businesses. You have better retention. You have more experienced and engaged workers,” Schexnider said.

Task force members were drawn from academia, business, labor and government. The U of C and the Metropolitan Planning Council contributed research, while funding came from The Chicago Community Trust and the Joyce Foundation.

The Illinois Future of Work Act of 2021 created the task force. Its report was submitted to the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Bruno said he hopes the recommendations could form the basis for state legislation next year.

The report said Illinois should see strong growth in health care, child care, education and hospitality. Other opportunities exist in areas such as clean energy and transportation, and the task force called for policies that would ensure traditionally marginalized groups get fair access to jobs.

It recommended more funding for post-secondary education programs that assist Blacks, Latinos and low-income and rural students, giving them an avenue to higher-paid positions.

The state’s most recent unemployment rate was 4.6% in April, but the rate was nearly three times as high for Black men and women, the report noted.

Manufacturing, a traditional source of stable work that has helped people move up the economic ladder, continues to decline as a share of the overall job market, the report said. But it said new jobs in manufacturing require skills in technology, so the state should incentivize training and capital investment.

Other labor trends the task force mentioned included a continued decline in the percentage of workers represented by a union and the growth of gig work. Studies have shown a correlation between union membership and overall higher levels of pay and benefits.

The report also said employers should be transparent about data collected from its work force and give staff the chance to opt out of some surveillance.

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