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Safety, Equity, Partnership: Strategies to Get Chicago’s Workforce Back to Work

August 14, 2020

On Monday, August 10, the Chicago Fed convened a community forum of business, labor, and education leaders as part of its Project Hometown initiative to consider the challenges facing Chicago’s workforce amidst the health and economic crises triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

In his opening remarks, Charlie Evans, president and CEO of the Chicago Fed, noted that the current economic situation is without modern precedent; practically overnight, nonessential businesses were shuttered, and millions of workers were furloughed. “Tragically, the most affected are our most vulnerable neighbors,” Evans said. “Their future is highly uncertain and will require new policies to help them through this difficult transition.”

Moderator Amanda Cage, president and CEO of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, led with a discussion of the measures that are needed to reopen the economy and get people safely back to work. Jack Lavin, president and CEO at Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, pointed to three key business needs. First is an expanded testing capacity so that if a worker at a business tests positive for Covid-19, other employees can be tested quickly so the business does not have to shutter again. Second is making it safe to take public transportation—and making sure people know that it’s safe. Around 60% of workers downtown use public transit, Lavin noted. Third, workers need school and childcare for their children or they won’t be able to go to work.

Employers also must do their part to protect their employees. Right now there is a lot of fear, stated Elba Aranda-Suh, executive director of the National Latino Education Institute. She described employers that have required employees with pre-existing health conditions to come to work, even when the business had Covid-19 cases. “Your workforce is the backbone of your productivity and your ability to profit,” Aranda-Suh said, “so it is important to really listen to what is happening to your workers.”

While such measures are critical to bringing workers back and thus to economic recovery, “simply returning to where we were in February is not enough,” Evans stated, as even during times of economic growth, systematic racism and other barriers limited opportunities for many Chicagoans. Cage added, “There is a lot of uncertainty, vulnerability, and suffering in our communities, but that pain is not being felt equally in our society.”

Andrea Kluger, director of Legislation and Politics for the Chicago Federation of Labor, described important worker protections that would promote economic and racial justice. She pointed to the lack of a social safety net for millions of workers who are classified as independent contractors, many of whom are Black and Brown. These workers do not receive the protections other workers do, including being entitled to a minimum wage and protected from discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.

Kluger also noted that women have been particularly impacted by schools’ transition to virtual instruction, as they remain primary caregivers for their children. “Because of this, it’s crucial that employers offer flexible and remote work hours because without that, any gains that we’ve made in women’s participation in the workforce will be lost for years to come,” Kluger stated.

Another way to make the economic recovery more equitable is to provide workforce development to displaced workers. Even after health concerns subside, some businesses won’t survive and their workers will need to transition to new jobs, as Evans pointed out. Panelist Juan Selgado is Chancellor at City Colleges of Chicago, which educates 77,000 students, 75% of whom are Black and Latinx. In response to the crisis, City Colleges has dedicated millions from the state and private giving to help students struggling with tuition or housing so that students will not have to pause their education, as most students who stop are unlikely to start again, Selgado observed. “We know that as we recover, and we will recover, that people with skills, credentials, and degrees are going to fare better,” Selgado said, which is why it is important that students get the assistance they need now to stay in their programs.

Selgado also described City College’s Fresh Start debt relief program, which helps students who left City College with debt but without a degree. If a returning student succeeds through the first semester, the college erases half their debt, and when the student finishes their program, all debt is erased. There are some 21,000 people currently eligible for the program.

To prepare workers for a changing economic landscape, workforce development programs are quickly adapting their curricula to prepare students with the skills currently needed by employers. As an example, Selgado described a new contact tracing program that City Colleges is offering in cooperation with Chicago Department of Public Health. Aranda-Suh noted the rapid expansion of telehealth and how training programs at NLEI are evolving to prepare workers for jobs in this field.

These workforce development programs will be most successful if businesses commit to hiring locally. Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce asked businesses to make such a commitment by taking the Chicago Pledge to hire locally, procure locally, and invest locally. Lavin described the success of Chamber-supported apprenticeship programs that hire trainees from local programs such as City Colleges, recognizing the diverse pipeline of talent that such institutions produce.

Throughout the discussion, panelists addressed actions the federal government should take to assist workers and employers with the many challenges they face. Lavin and Kluger stressed how vital it is that the federal government immediately extend the CARES Act’s enhanced unemployment benefits so that workers have resources to provide for their families and pay rent. For individuals who have lost jobs and so risk losing health insurance in the middle of a global pandemic, Kluger urged the government to help with COBRA payments. And Aranda-Suh stressed the need for federal assistance for workforce training.

Selgado concluded that to address historic inequities, all federal policy must start to apply an equity-based lens. Too often, federal policy ends up privileging some groups over others by, for example, supporting homeowners more than renters, or universities more than community colleges. To make this recovery and the future economic landscape equitable for all, federal policy must be guided by the principle of equity.


The views expressed in this post are our own and do not reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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