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McLean County Job Seekers Weigh Pay, Health, Career Goals As Jobless Benefits Expire

More than 60 businesses participated in a job fair at Eastland Mall in Bloomington on Tuesday.
Eric Stock
More than 60 businesses participated in a job fair Tuesday at Eastland Mall in Bloomington.

Employers in McLean County say they need more workers. Many of them have been counting on the end of the federal government's expanded jobless benefits to bring more people back into the labor force.

But job hunters in Bloomington-Normal say their reasons for returning to the workforce now are more complicated than that.

Lisa Taborn of Bloomington lost her food service job last year at the height of COVID shutdowns. After being out of work for more than a year, she said she's tired of being stuck at home.

Taborn said she grateful the expanded unemployment benefits helped her to stay safe, but added if it wasn't for the threat of COVID-19, she would have looked for work a lot sooner.

“What’s making it harder for me is the pandemic won’t go away, so it makes you afraid to go back to work, and now you see (coronavirus cases) are going back up, because kids are getting sick and teachers are getting sick,” Taborn said. “It’s kind of scary.”

Taborn was one of many job seekers who came out of a job fair Tuesday at Eastland Mall in Bloomington.

The McLean County Chamber of Commerce hosted the event this week for 65 businesses that have 1,800 available jobs.

Shane Goble was another job seeker at the fair. He worked in sales for a telecommunications company for 13 years when he lost his job in June 2020. He said the additional benefits "helped immensely," but he said sitting at home doesn’t sit well with him.

“I’m not one to stay out of work. I’ve had a job ever since the day I turned 16,” Goble said. “I’ve been motivated to get a job this whole time. It’s just been tough with everything that’s been going on with COVID.”

Goble said he had to help with remote learning for his three children. That left little time to take on a new job or even look for one. Now that his kids are back in the classroom, Goble said he has time to job hunt.

Some who were forced out of the workforce took the time to explore a new career. Devin Callahan of Bloomington staffed the front desk at a hotel for five years until he was laid off late last year. He said he now wants to find a job he can get excited about.

“I’m looking for something that I’d be able to use my creative streak on,” Callahan explained. “I’m getting a little tired of the grind and I just want to be able to do something that makes me want to come in to work.”

Callahan hasn't found anything yet and he said he doesn't have the time or money to go back to school, adding it's time to come up with something that will pay the bills.

Lisa Tayborn, Shane Goble and Devin Callahan all said they are confident they will find work. Employers say if you want to work, there are plenty of jobs out there.

Abbey Placements
Eric Stock
Marc Poirier and Liza Oliver with Abbey Placements took part in a McLean County job fair in Bloomington on Tuesday.

“We probably haven’t seen this level of competition in most of our 40 years in business,” said Marc Poirier, general manager at Abbey Placements in Bloomington.

Poirier said his staffing agency has close to 100 open positions, in everything from industrial and warehouse to clerical and office work. He said some people will call looking for a job and will find it elsewhere before the staffing agency has a chance to get them in its system.

Poirier said competition in the job market has pressured companies to pay more.

“The workers' expectations have increased and in response, a lot of companies have had to increase their wages,” Poirier said. “The minimum wage is $11 an hour, but I don’t think maybe one in 20 people would even consider that currently, based on some of the research we’ve been doing.”

Poirier said Abbey Placements encourages companies to set entry-level wages at least $13 per hour, and $15 for more labor-intensive work. He said it's too early to tell if the end of expanded jobless benefits will bring more people back to work, but he said job seekers seem more serious now. They aren't ghosting employers anymore.

“What we’ve seen is that the number of interviews have remained similar, but since the unemployment benefits have ended, a number of people that said they are interested and then disappeared, some of that has stopped,” Poirier said.

McDonald's touts itself as “America's Best First Job” and it's trying to make those jobs more attractive in a tough climate for employers. John Johns is the training manager for 15 McDonald's restaurants in McLean County. He said the "Golden Arches" saw a rise in applicants when expanded benefits ended earlier this month, but it's not clear whether the trend will last.

McDonalds staff job fair
Eric Stock
Local McDonald's restaurants recently increased its minimum wage to $13 per hour.

“We did see a significant boost that first week,” Johns said. “It started to even out a little bit recently, but we are hopeful that will continue to rise as the month goes on.”

McDonalds just increased its minimum wage from $12 to $13 an hour. The company also pushes its employee benefits that include college tuition assistance and paid time off. Johns said McDonalds is looking to hire up to five more workers at each of its 15 restaurants. He said when jobs can't be filled, it makes it harder on current staff.

“Our people are very resilient. They put up with a lot, especially right now,” Johns said. “They don’t have adequate staff most days of the week and our people are busting their butts, and we are extremely grateful for all they do. We are trying as hard as we can to get them more help because they deserve it.”

Some employers said they can only afford to pay so much. Charlie Moore, CEO of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, said some companies have decided it's not worth it to pay more — and they cut back hours and service instead.

Charlie Moore headshot
McLean County Chamber of Commerce
Charlie Moore

“If you take a look at it from a business perspective, when they have to increase the cost of what they are paying their employees and they look at their profit margin, are they better (off) to reduce their hours versus being open at often as we have become accustomed,” Moore said.

Moore said he doesn't foresee a big surge in job applicants,noting the county's unemployment rate is low at just under 5% — the lowest in the state. Moore said the chamber wants to expand the workforce and find people who don't show up in the employment data.

“What we want to try to do is look for the stay-at-home parent who might be looking for opportunities (now) that the kids have gone back to school,” said Moore, adding the chamber provided bus service from Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities to the job fair to help connect students with jobs and internships.

Moore added the chamber also is marketing jobs in Peoria, Champaign-Urbana and Springfield where unemployment is higher.

Higher wages can make a difference in filling those jobs, even for those already in the workforce.

Christian Frazier of Bloomington does janitorial work at a grocery store. He came to the job fair looking for a better-paying job and he thinks he found it. “I got an interview for a janitorial (job),” Frazier beamed. “They start out at $16. I need that one.”

Frazier said he expects he'll get a call back by the end of the week.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
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