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Area workforce reaching 'crisis' level

The state of Kankakee County’s workforce is at a crossroads. It has weathered the COVID-19 storm, for now, but the workforce needs some reinvigoration to avert a crisis, according to Ladonna Russell, executive director of the Grundy Livingston Kankakee Workforce Board.

Russell gave a 45-minute State of the Workforce presentation Monday at the Kankakee County Administration Building to one of the county’s subcommittees on how to invest the American Rescue Plan Act funds. The presentation examined pre-COVID employment numbers, employment numbers at the height of COVID and where the county stands now.

“A year pre-COVID we were in full employment,” Russell said. “So basically employers were really in desperate need of workers. Again, there were more job openings than people. If you look at the unemployment rate, it was the lowest it’s ever been for Kankakee County. And then obviously it changed during April of 2020.”

The county’s unemployment rate went from 4.1 percent to 15.9 percent due to the COVID shutdown.

“We were actually less than the state of Illinois,” Russell said. “We have a more diverse industry group here within the county. We have healthcare; we have manufacturing; we have service sector; and we have professional business service. That actually helped mitigate the amount of layoffs.”

The county’s unemployment rate dipped below 6 percent in October 2020, but it was back to 6.8 percent in June 2021, according to the latest data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

Companies in Kankakee County are having a hard time filling vacant positions for a myriad of reasons. Russell said the county’s total labor force (those working or actively seeking work) pre-COVID was approximately 56,000, and it dropped to 51,000 during the height of COVID. Now, the labor force is at 53,098 for June.

“Three-thousand less people are no longer looking for work,” Russell said. “How do we get these people back and re-engaged? How do we get them to come back into the workforce? How do we get them the skills necessary to get back into the workforce because they’ve been maybe out for a while.”

Russell said the labor force number is important for companies across the county.

‘Desperate need’

“Employers are in desperate need of workers,” she said. “There is a workforce shortage right now. There’s not enough workers. They are not getting the applications. They are not getting quality workers. ... Employers are in desperate need of workers. They cannot fill positions.”

There are 4,008 job posts in Kankakee County, according to the Workforce Board. There are 3,631 people collecting unemployment in the county, according to IDES.

“If we got every one of those people jobs, we would still not have enough people for all the postings,” Russell said. “We would still be short 377. So it goes back to how do we get these people back into the workforce?”

Russell mentioned organizations or companies looking to fill positions include county government, Kankakee School District, Riverside Healthcare and AMITA Health St. Mary’s Hospital — not to mention several manufacturers.

“We hear from employers daily,” she said. “’How do I recruit? How do I find people? What’s your magic number?’ Unfortunately, we do the best we can.”

Russell said her offices get the word out to the community through social media.

“But those 3,000 workers are making a huge impact right now on the workforce shortage in the county for workers,” she said.

The $300 weekly federal benefit the unemployed receive in addition to their regular unemployment check is scheduled to end Sept. 4. That could spark some of those who are unemployed, and making more money receiving those benefits than by working, seek employment. Russell said it’s frustrating that some of those who have been unemployed for more than a year, haven’t taken advantage of getting more training or acquiring additional skills in order to improve their employment prospects.

Looking for a solution

In addition, Russell said the Workforce Board is looking to hire a consultant to do a local wage and benefits survey to understand what the current market rate is for three industries — manufacturing, healthcare, and transportation-distribution-logistics. Are local companies offering employees competitive wages and benefits? The report is going to hopefully address those questions, she said.

She said they’ll work with the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County and local chambers of commerce to get the results of the survey out to the public, “so they know this is what the market rate is, and this is what the benefits are. ... The employers can make the best decision on, are they competitive?”

Russell said bids for the contract work on the survey are due Aug. 9. The job will be awarded by Sept. 1 and the results of the survey will be completed by December.

There are other stumbling blocks to getting those on unemployment back into the workforce, including childcare, transportation, wage expectations, flexibility on work hours, work ethic and COVID.

Angela Morrey, director of marketing & business attraction for the economic alliance, said they’ve been hearing from companies who can’t find enough workers that say it’s affecting production.

“One employer had said if they can fill all their open positions, they could increase production by 45 percent,” Morrey said. “It is a continuous trickle-down effect. People going back to work, helping our manufacturers, our employers, the better they do, the better our county does as a whole.”

Kankakee to soon begin $1.4M of street rehab

KANKAKEE — The 2021 street maintenance program in Kankakee went to a familiar name — Kankakee Valley Construction Company — and city officials say it’s for a very good reason.

The Kankakee-based construction company’s bid for street rehab for the city was estimated to come in about $1.4 million.

Kankakee Valley’s bid came in at $1,096,560 or just about $300,000 less than expected and because of that, both Mayor Chris Curtis and City Engineer Neil Piggush believe the city can get even more work done this year than originally anticipated.

Kankakee Valley’s bid easily beat a $1.45 million bid from a Thornton asphalt company and a $1.59 million bid from a Bourbonnais excavating company.

Because of the dramatic savings on the bid, Mayor Chris Curtis said an additional $25,000 to $30,000 could be spent in each of the city’s seven wards. He said the city will be looking to ward leadership to identify areas where additional work can be done this year.

Work will likely begin by September for the grinding and resurfacing of streets.

There should be no shortage of areas in need of consuming the additional $300,000. The city streets in many areas are in desperate need of new asphalt. The past couple years, the city had little money to spend on street maintenance and the street surfaces have sharply declined in many areas.

COVID numbers continue incline in Kankakee County

KANKAKEE — Kankakee County’s COVID-19 cases are increasing with the delta variant influx, though the rise seems marginally less steep than some nearby counties.

According to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health for Region 7, which includes Kankakee and Will counties, the seven-day test positivity rolling average has risen from 1.3 percent on July 2 to 3.3 early last week to 4.9 on July 30.

The region’s COVID numbers are nearing the level reached in late April and early May.

“For Kankakee County by ourselves, our positive rate currently is 2.3 and it’s been hovering between 1.7 and 2.3 for at least the past week,” said Kankakee County Health Department Administrator John Bevis.

Still, the county’s positivity percentage has not hit 2 percent for a month and a half.

“Our testing numbers are still satisfactory to get an indication of what’s out there in our community. Obviously, with Will County’s population being much larger than ours, they are the ones that are currently sitting at a little bit higher, their positivity rate is at 5.3,” he said.

Other than noting the difference between the population, proximity to northern Illinois and the two counties’ demographics, Bevis is not sure why Kankakee County is seeing a lower rate.

Last week, Will County reported 61 positive cases per 100,000 people, while Kankakee County saw 36, the lowest of its surrounding counties. Just over 37 percent of Kankakee County is vaccinated, as of Monday, while Will County is 50 percent vaccinated.

IDPH communicated as of a week ago that Kankakee County has had around 20 cases of the COVID-19 delta variant, Bevis said. However, the variant is difficult to track because tests taken to determine positivity do not differentiate the strain.

IDPH tests some cases for origin and has used them to extrapolate that the delta variant caused 80 percent of positive COVID cases currently in Illinois, Bevis said.

Last week, amid rising COVID infection rates and a bump in vaccinations, Gov. JB Pritzker said he was “looking at all the possible mitigations.” He has not announced plans to resume any mandated restrictions.

Bevis is unsure if the state will reinstate restrictions.

“For the past year and a half, if anything, I have learned to expect the unexpected,” he said. “So this is obviously evolving on a day-by-day basis. We’re definitely going to need to be monitoring. Our community locally over the weekend had Merchant Street MusicFest, Chicago had Lollapalooza, a lot of areas are having big festivals, the county fair’s coming up, so people are out and about.”

Bevis continued, “So yes, I fully expect things to change, but how it changes, how much it changes, nobody’s going to know. The difference between last year and today is that we have a vaccine available, and the easiest thing people can do to help prevent getting delta or COVID is to get vaccinated.”

The health department vaccinated 90 people Saturday at clinics at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School and Momence High School, and hopes to entice more locals to get first doses during the second round of clinics in three weeks, Bevis said.

He also recommended that residents inform themselves on the risks of travelling.

“The CDC has good maps of locations where you would be going, you can see whether they’re considered a hotspot or not, whether you need to be extra cautious when you’re there,” Bevis said.

With the increasing numbers and events like MusicFest in mind, Bevis said the health department will assess the statistics of the next two weeks carefully.

“Nobody can predict the future, so that’s part of why we look at these numbers every day and are able to see if there’s any new trends going up and down,” he said.

Tetter's 7th Ward council vacancy declared, applicants sought

KANKAKEE — A replacement to fill the Kankakee City Council vacancy created by the resignation of 7th Ward Alderman Fred Tetter appears likely to be named at the Aug. 16 council meeting.

Mayor Chris Curtis informed the council that current 7th Ward Alderman Carl Brown and Tetter will be seeking applicants for the position. Tetter recently resigned his position citing his desire to spend more time with family and friends.

Tetter had been an aldermen since May 2013 after he defeated longtime Kankakee City Council member Steven Hunter in that spring’s election.

Curtis said he is also accepting applications at city hall for anyone interested in the position.

The 7th Ward is located in the northeastern portion of the city.

He said Brown and Tetter may know of individuals who would like to serve on the 14-member council. If they have names of those individuals, he said they will bring them forward.

Curtis noted if the council does not approve a replacement 7th Ward alderman at the Aug. 16 meeting, a special meeting will be needed to get the person approved because the following council meeting, set for Sept. 7, the day after the Labor Day holiday, would not fall within the 30-day time frame allowed by ordinance.

The appointment will be the second made to the council within the span of two months. On June 15, 4th Ward Alderman Lance Marczak was appointed to fill the vacancy created when Frank Hasik IV was not allowed to take his just-won council seat due to a work conflict of interest.

Because Hasik is a Kankakee Environmental Services Utilities employer, he was not allowed to hold the elected office at the same time he was employed by the city.