Austerity in Action: Illinois Workers—Public and Private—Still Losing Jobs

Kari Lydersen

CHICAGO — Illinois may have a lower unemployment rate than the official national average – 8.8 percent in December, compared to 9.8 percent in January nationally – but it has been a rough winter for Illinois workers, including many public and private sector union members. (Both figures don’t count people who during the economic crisis or beforehand have just given up looking for work.)

More than 700 Illinois workers in the past two weeks found out they will be laid off within 60 days as part of plant closings or mass layoffs covered under the WARN Act (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act).

And more than a thousand other workers employed by Cook County, which includes Chicago, will be laid off after a controversial budget is passed by the end of the month. This new county budget will come on the heels of drastic state income and corporate tax increases passed by Democratic state legislators in January to deal with Illinois’ massive budget deficit.

The WARN Act mandates that when more than 75 workers are laid off, they must get 60 days notice (or 60 days severance pay), theoretically to help government and social service agencies prepare for the influx of need.

State reports listing WARN Act notices are a good way to track pending layoffs, though they of course don’t include smaller businesses or situations where employers lay off workers in waves that avoid the definition of a mass layoff, sometimes intentionally. The listings indicate whether an employer is union – for example, January WARN Act notices include Teamsters at a chocolate confection company and IBEW workers at a closing power plant.

The layoffs also come at a Chicago bakery, two closing K-Marts, a CD and DVD distribution company, a paperboard box company and a warehousing company. The WARN notices indicate when layoffs take effect, whether they are permanent or temporary and whether bumping rights are involved.

Illinois’ December layoffs included union workers at a newspaper in the state capitol, employees of a realty firm, of Kaplan University and of another box manufacturer. In November more than 1,000 Illinois workers got WARN Act notices, including from a Sara Lee plant closing, a graphics company laying off 417 people and companies making envelopes, windows and doors and metal household furniture closing.

Meanwhile, by the end of February, Cook County — the nation’s largest county — will need to pass a budget that is expected to include at least 1,300 layoffs of county workers, including in the State’s Attorney’s, sheriff’s and circuit court clerk’s offices. In the State’s Attorney’s office, victim-witness specialists, secretaries, clerks and community outreach workers – many of them union – are among those targeted.

Each sector of the county government – also including the public health system that serves the poor and uninsured – have been ordered to cut their budgets by 10 to 16 percent. The leaders of different systems have lobbied to lessen the impact on their departments, and clashed publicly with the county board over its budget reduction demands. Union nurses and doctors are among those to be laid off in the county health system, where cuts that have already been started are also expected to reduce services for the neediest people.

The Cook County government has long been considered bloated” with patronage positions and unnecessary workers, and the new county board president Toni Preckwinkle, a supporter of organized labor, has won praise for trimming the fat. But others point out that while the county payroll may have been out of control and an undue burden on taxpayers, each layoff does represent a person who will no longer have a job and whose unemployment will have ripple economic and social effects.

Preckwinkle acknowledged as much, telling the Chicago Sun-Times:

While some people who are being laid off were clearly slackers or shirkers, the overwhelming majority were good and decent people who just got up every day and went to work and tried to do a good job. It’s very painful to me that one of my first tasks in public office — in this office — is to put so many people out on the street.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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