Crucial time for politicians to grow the workforce and support small businesses

As the pandemic seemed to be waning early this summer, my colleagues and I gathered for an after-hour event at a Chicago restaurant.

We had been there before and were thrilled to be back. The owner joined us on the patio, and we discussed his journey back from the pandemic. He expressed excitement that Illinois had opened for business. However, he also lamented that his restaurant would be closed one extra day each week because he could not staff his establishment with enough employees.

We have heard this story too often. Restaurant owners cannot find employees to serve their patrons. Manufacturing companies remain hampered by a lack of qualified candidates.

It seems small businesses across Illinois are struggling to find employees. Often times, this is impacting the same small businesses that were devastated by the pandemic.

Illinois politicians have a role to play in growing the workforce and supporting the small businesses that drive our economy. Policymakers can do both by promptly and thoughtfully utilizing American Rescue Plan Funds.

According to the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds Initial Report issued by the Governor's Office of Management and Budget on Aug. 31, Illinois received $8.127 billion as part of ARPA. Illinois enacted Fiscal Year 2022 budget only allocated $2.8 billion of those funds. There are billions of dollars remaining. Some of that money should be used to help people get back to work.

Policymakers can begin growing the workforce by allocating ARPA funds for small businesses that train and hire individuals who lost their jobs or businesses because of the pandemic. Many folks are not interested in returning to the jobs they held prior to the pandemic and are opting to start new careers. Providing small businesses with resources to offer on-the-job training for net new employees will help them create opportunities for unemployed Illinoisans while supplementing their workforce.

Politicians should also provide grants to small businesses that train and hire individuals whose interactions with the criminal justice system hamper their ability to find employment. This policy will create opportunities for those working to build a better life. It will support returning citizens, the small business community, and the Illinois economy.

There is also bipartisan support galvanizing around financial incentives for child and dependent care. Illinois should implement a policy that provides eligible, working parents financial assistance with child care so they can re-enter the workforce. Providing incentives for child and dependent care can help Illinois secure a robust workforce.

ARPA was passed, in part, to foster the recovery of small businesses and the economy. Given that many small businesses continue to struggle, and our workforce cannot meet the demands of local employers, it is difficult to fathom why Illinois policymakers are leaving so much money on the table. The SBAC strongly urges policymakers to use ARPA funds in an expeditious manner to grow our workforce and support small businesses.

• Elliot Richardson is president and co-founder of the Small Business Advocacy Council.

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