COVID-19-related unemployment ranges from 5.1% to 6.9% in Chicago, suburbs

Heidi Vienup went to bed March 19 with a job.

By the next day, the Hoffman Estates retail worker was navigating the state's unemployment website.

"It was so sudden," she said. "They just sent everyone an email."

Vienup was one of the 397,137 workers across the state who were laid off or furloughed in March in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. That amounts to 6.3% of the state's workforce and represents a 10-fold increase over first-time unemployment claims from the month before, when 37,561 first-time claims were filed.

In Cook County alone, 6.9% of those with jobs in February filed for unemployment benefits in March, well above the state average. According to Illinois Department of Employment Security reports, 176,953 Cook County workers filed for unemployment last month, which represents nearly 45% of all the laid off workers in the state.

In the collar counties, March unemployment filings ranged from 5.1% of the workforce in Lake County to 6.8% in McHenry and Will counties.

"You're always going to see these kinds of disparities because of where the job losses are coming from," said Jeremy Groves, an associate professor of economics at Northern Illinois University. "This is attacking the service base of our economy, and some counties have more of that than others."

Jeffrey Poynter, director of the McHenry County Workforce Network Board, said claims are only going to increase for April.

"I think it's going to be worse across the board," Poynter said. "McHenry County has a very large tourism economy, and that has pretty much come to a halt."

Experts believe some counties fared better than others because they had diverse employment opportunities or a lot of workers employed in what the government has determined to be "essential" businesses, which include airports, food production plants and manufacturers of critical supplies, among others.

DuPage County saw 5.7% of its workforce file first-time unemployment claims in March.

"We had a fundamentally strong, diversified economy going into this, and the flip just got switched in March," said Tim Elliott, chairman of the DuPage County Board's economic development committee. "I do think we're suffering, but we're rising to the challenge."

In Kane County, 5.9% of the workforce filed for unemployment in March.

Only 16 of Illinois' 102 counties had a higher percentage of workers file unemployment claims than Cook County's 6.9%.

In Boone, Clay and Marion counties, the rate was more than 10%, while elsewhere - like Brown and Henderson counties - less than 2% of the workforce filed claims.

Employment centers throughout the state have been trying to help those who are looking for new jobs. Some just hope to wait it out.

"I'm not looking for anything else right now because I'd like to go back to the job I had, since I know what I'm doing there," Vienup said. "Also, I'm making more off unemployment now than I would be working."

That's thanks to the additional $600 a week former workers are receiving because their businesses were shuttered by the pandemic. That money is part of the federal government's $2.2 trillion CARES Act. The extra bump is set to expire in July.

"It's too early to tell the effect of this on the overall employment landscape," said Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.

Nearly 250,000 new first-time unemployment claims were made in the last two weeks, according to the IDES data portal.

But there were about 50,000 fewer filings last week than the week before. And with Gov. J.B. Pritzker loosening some of the restrictions on retailers to allow delivery and curbside pickup starting May 1, many hope there will be an uptick in employment next month.

"We were getting multiple (mass layoff) notices from the state almost every day there for a while," Norington-Reaves said. "But they've started to slow down, and I don't think I've seen a new one since last Wednesday."

Pritzker took some heat initially because the state's unemployment processing system was not able to handle the massive flow of requests. The governor said recently the state is upgrading systems and adding personnel to handle those claims more quickly and efficiently. Those who are unemployed because of the coronavirus outbreak and still haven't filed a claim can start online at the IDES website,

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