Every day, there is more difficult news about the devastation of this pandemic, both about our health and wellbeing, and about the economic impact felt hardest by working people, communities of color, and small businesses.

The first coronavirus responses from Congress, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act, have been steps in the right direction. However, they leave critical new investments in workforce development and retraining unaddressed. Beyond that, they stopped short in providing protections to frontline workers, and did not provide sufficient support to state and local governments to address the budget shortfalls that may result from emergency spending and drastic revenue loss. All of this has to change – and soon – as workers and job-seekers face an unprecedented employment catastrophe. 

Congress must invest in workers and ensure funded pathways back into the economy through workforce development in the next pandemic response bill. 

The Chicago Jobs Council sent a letter, along with 46 other organizations, asking Illinois Representatives and Senators for major, well-targeted funding for critical workforce development services. Our full letter is below. Please read and share (find your legislators’ twitter and other contact here #InvestInWorkforce).

Dear United States Senators and Representatives from the great state of Illinois 

The undersigned workforce development service providers, businesses, advocates, and industry stakeholders from Illinois are grateful for your leadership in passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the CARES Act to provide emergency assistance to workers and families already experiencing the strain of the current pandemic. As organizations who work with vulnerable workers and job seekers, we write today to urge that the next federal COVID-19 response include major funding for critical workforce development services. Millions are facing unparalleled calamity, and will need support both for immediate survival and for transition to in-demand, family-sustaining careers in an upturned labor market. 

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended the stability of our economy and the livelihoods of workers across the country. Last month nearly ten million workers filed unemployment claims in a two-week period. According to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 20 million workers will likely be laid off or furloughed by July. 

Our workforce development system is tasked with making sure that all workers, particularly those with barriers to work, have the skills they need for meaningful employment. As you read this, community-based service providers, workforce boards, labor unions, community colleges, small businesses, and other stakeholders are struggling to support job seekers and maintain services through remote learning. However, they are in urgent need of more resources. States are using federal funds to provide online resources to current job seekers for activities like transitional employment and supporting employers who are looking to hire new employees or maintain their existing workforce, but these operations are running out of funding. Furthermore, many job seekers require wraparound supportive services to continue building skills in the face of this crisis. By strengthening federal investments, we can support reemployment and layoff aversion strategies, as well as upskilling and reskilling opportunities and employment services for displaced and dislocated workers. 

Here in Illinois, many job seekers struggled to get by even before this pandemic hit. At the same time, lack of access to education and skills training, workplace discrimination, historical disinvesment in low-income communities, and structural barriers to employment left family- sustaining jobs out of reach for many. Coming out of this crisis, we must do better than simply getting back to normal. We must ensure every Illinoisan has the opportunity to move beyond low-wage jobs into family-sustaining career pathways.

As you craft the next package of relief measures for our communities in response to COVID-19, we respectfully request that you champion significant investments in our nation’s workforce development system, and support for state and local governments. We also request that you use the power of your office to pressure the United States Department of Labor to use its discretion to provide flexibility to current workforce grants under the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA). Specifically, we ask that you:

1) Invest no less than $15 billion in our workforce development system, with a particular emphasis on funding programs that serve people with major employment barriers.

We know it will be critical to ramp up funding for workers dislocated due to COVID-19; to support layoff aversion efforts, to quickly upskill prospective healthcare professionals; and to address labor shortages in the current essential workforce. However, we also know that many Illinoisans were already struggling to connect with family-sustaining employment before. Now, we need additional resources to ensure they do not continue to be left behind.

Workforce investments should be made with an equity lens, ensuring that funding prioritizes resources for young people, people with criminal records, people with low literacy, immigrant workers, and people who face other structural barriers that marginalize them from access to good-paying jobs. In addition to providing dollars for training and upskilling, we must also ensure that there are sufficient allotments for wraparound support services to stabilize vulnerable job seekers who may join the re-opened economy with numerous emergency costs (such as back rent, utilities, transportation costs, childcare costs, and other barriers) threatening their successful participation in workforce services and the labor market. This funding should be tied to economic triggers rather than arbitrary sunset dates – meaning the increased funding levels last as long as the ensuing economic crisis, which could endure for years.

2) In addition to workforce investments, prioritize an additional $500 billion in federal aid for state and local governments in order to protect essential social services.

Illinois is one of the worst-prepared states in the nation to weather this crisis. In FY2020, our state held a mere 2% of our General Fund as reserves – 45th in the nation. Revenue from sales taxes, income taxes, and capital gains taxes are projected to steeply decline. To weather the coming recession, Illinois will need significant budget reserves and the flexibility to spend them when needed to limit the damage to state investments in people and infrastructure. Without massive federal investments, our state may be forced to cut essential services that will help workers and job seekers in our state access healthcare, food, unemployment benefits, workforce services, education and all the essential resources that support them and their families. 

3) Pressure the United States Department of Labor (US DOL) to suspend or renegotiate WIOA performance measures during this crisis and the resulting economic fallout.

When the current WIOA performance measures for job placement, job retention, and earnings were negotiated between US DOL and Illinois, the labor market was totally different. And even then, these metrics put pressure on service providers to work with people who were easiest to place rather than individuals who needed the most help to place. While the statistical adjustment model used for WIOA metrics considers some variation in populations served and labor market conditions, it is entirely unprepared for our new economic reality.

Providers of workforce development services are not just facing increased demand, but a new and different landscape. Providers are rapidly adjusting operations to address the emerging needs of both job seekers and employers during this crisis (for example, hiring and training for crisis-related jobs in food distribution, alternative emergency healthcare sites, and IT). This will also impact current performance measures. In this new normal, WIOA performance measures must adapt to changing regional service strategies and economic factors, perhaps with several opportunities for renegotiation in this tumultuous, unprecedented labor market. Illinois’ Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has requested that the US DOL reconsider current performance measures. However, to this point, the US DOL has indicated their unwillingness to provide this critical funding flexibility.

At this time of heightened uncertainty, particularly for community-based service providers who rely on federal funding to retain their staff of workforce professionals, we must eliminate this precarity and offer maximum flexibility. This does not mean sacrificing program quality – on the contrary, quality services will require agencies to be nimble and responsive to the shifting needs of job seekers and employers as this situation continues to develop.

As such, we urge your office to reach out directly to the US DOL Employment and Training Administration to request that they renegotiate WIOA performance measures to allow service providers to adapt to rapidly changing labor market conditions and meet the needs of vulnerable job seekers in Illinois.

4) Pressure the CDC to withdraw harmful guidance that endangers the frontline “essential” workforce, who are disproportionately workers of color.

As you may know, on April 7, 2020, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued guidance allowing employers to force workers to work even after they have been exposed to COVID-19 rather than go into self-quarantine. This unconscionable action puts the lives of workers, their families and the public at even greater risk than they already are. This is a complete reversal of the policy the CDC has for the public, flies in the face of scientific evidence and disregards the fact that workers are dying right now, every day, needlessly! While hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans lose their jobs, many employers in these essential industries are aggressively hiring. However, workforce providers must ensure that they are not connecting job seekers with opportunities that may put them and their families at grave health risk. 

We hope you will pressure the CDC to withdraw this dangerous guidance, and push for policies that heighten enforcement of safety and health protections, guarantee sick leave for all essential workers, and ensure workers exposed on the job have access to workers compensation.

Robust investments in workforce development will help job seekers in Illinois and across the country gain the skills and support services to provide for themselves and their families and boost our nation’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout this crisis, we have been grateful for Illinois’ state and local leaders in responding to our current challenges under tremendous strain and despite scarce resources. We are confident that if you make these additional critical investments in workers, public systems, and workforce service providers, Illinois’ diverse, committed, and effective workforce stakeholders will work collaboratively to support workers and businesses in every corner of Illinois. 

Signatory Organizations:

Chicago Jobs Council 

Beacon Hill Community Services, Inc.

BlueEarth Deconstruction 

Bragg & Associates, Inc.

Cara Chicago

Career Connections at Moraine Valley Community College

Central States SER

Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition 

Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership 

Chicago Urban League

Community Youth Development Institute

Employment & Employer Services (E&ES)

Erie Neighborhood House

Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse

Growing Home, Inc.

Heartland Alliance 

HIRE360

HOW (Housing Opportunities for Women)

Illinois Workforce Partnership 

Illinois YouthBuild Coalition

Inspiration Corporation

LISC Chicago

Literacy Works 

Monarch Thrift Shop

National Able Network

New Moms 

OAI, Inc.

PODER

Power Construction Company 

Quad County Urban League 

The Renaissance Collaborative, Inc

ResCare Workforce Services

Revolution Workshop

Safer Foundation

Scott Simpson Builders 

Shriver Center on Poverty Law 

Spero Family Services

St. Josephs Services 

St. Leonard’s Ministries 

St. Sabina Employment Resource Center

The Community Works

Upwardly Global

Women Employed

World Relief Corporation

Xced Design Build

Young Invincibles 

YouthBuild Lake County

Youth Connection Charter School

YWCA Metropolitan Chicago