Illinois businesses still struggling two years into COVID-19
Argie Karafotias came to the United States with nothing. He opened several businesses, including the Golden Brunch restaurant in Arlington Heights. Before the pandemic hit, he was thriving and growing fast.
"I live the American dream. We were worth, our restaurant, more than $1 million," Karafotias said. "But it was a striking moment when we heard the governor say, 'Everyone's closing down.' We lost more than $500,000 and now we're trying to bring back the business by changing our menus ... Now we're just trying to survive."
Two years since the pandemic hit Illinois and COVID-19 protocols were announced, Illinois' labor market has still not recovered. Karafotias' story is all too common. The state must focus on leveling the power dynamics and helping struggling businesses return to their full potential.
Let's look at the numbers.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Illinois is still missing 178,300 jobs compared to January 2020, when the state's job numbers peaked ahead of the pandemic. The state's recovery is ranked 12th worst in the nation.
In addition, 308,600 Illinoisans are still out of work and the state's 4.8% unemployment rate is highest in the Midwest.
The situation is particularly grim when looking at the hospitality and leisure jobs sector, which was the hardest-hit industry during the pandemic. Restaurants, bars, hotels and other leisure industries are still missing 77,000 jobs, which represents 37% of the state's missing jobs -- more than any other area of the economy. Its total recovery is third worst in the nation.
I've said it before in this column: Illinois' job climate is particularly unfriendly.
Illinois' labor market is suffering under one of the highest tax burdens in the nation and pensions crowd out money that could be used to fund services such as job training programs. Illinois needs reform that will control the state's cost drivers and deliver the services taxpayers expect for their dollars.
But this sluggish recovery is also partly because of Illinois' strict COVID-19 policy response and the lack of ability for businesses to have a say in policymaking.
"In the restaurant industry, think about it ... our busboys, our servers, our cooks. We are moving the economy," Karafotias said. "We are one of the largest economic powers in Illinois and the country. We put money back into the economy, we don't sit on it. If we all stop spending, what happens to our local economy?"
Whatever health benefits they may have produced, Illinois' lockdown policies likely slowed the state's employment recovery.
It's been over two years since Gov. J.B. Pritzker invoked emergency powers to impose his first COVID-19 executive order. Since then, Pritzker has extended his emergency powers 27 times through proclamations -- without input from the Illinois General Assembly. Illinois is a rare Midwestern state because it is still under unilateral emergency powers today. Pritzker has issued 115 executive orders in that time, enacting policies on masking, closing businesses, requiring vaccinations and more.
Illinois law does not currently give lawmakers oversight of the governor's emergency powers. Thirty-four other states do. Illinois' governor faces no accountability.
Emergency powers were designed to be used in dire times, which was the case in the early days of the pandemic. But two years is far past the time when the virus was a new and unexpected threat to public health. It's time for Illinois to act like most other states and allow the legislature to terminate a governor's emergency powers.
Illinois was among the Midwestern states where leisure and hospitality jobs fared the worst and also among the quickest to adopt COVID-19 restrictions. It imposed more of them over time than other states in the region.
Businesses such as Golden Brunch deserve autonomy and the ability to provide for their workers and their community. Changes could be enacted now so we protect businesses before the next disaster strikes.
• Matt Paprocki is president of the Illinois Policy Institute.