Watch now: Unemployment is down in Bloomington-Normal, yet businesses still struggle to hire – The Pantagraph

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Joe Wargo at Joe’s Station House in Normal said fostering employee buy-in worth higher wages.
BLOOMINGTON — “Help wanted” signs hang in the windows of businesses. Job postings litter employment websites and bulletin boards. And career fairs attempt to fill the ever-growing openings.
Illinois unemployment rates have decreased steadily in the last six months, yet local businesses say they are still struggling to fill open positions.
Just two years ago, a “help wanted” display could net 25 to 30 job applications in a few weeks for Prairie Gardens & Jeffrey Alans in Normal. But store manager Reggie Valentine said that’s just not enough to attract employees these days.
“Now we’re lucky if we get two or three,” he told The Pantagraph this week. “It’s a drastic difference. There’s just not a lot of people coming in.”
The trend is hitting industries across the United States as businesses crawl out of post-pandemic shutdowns and mass layoffs. But as owners try and bring back their workers, they’re getting fewer applications and lower employee retention, leading to shorter business hours, longer service times, and mass supply chain disruptions.
Case in point: The Bloomington metropolitan area unemployment rate has shrunk to 4% this month, a 1.8% percentage point decrease over the last year, according Illinois Department of Employment Security data.
Bloomington-Normal ended September with 87,600 non-farm jobs, a 500 over-the-year decrease. Data shows leisure and hospitality, construction and education all saw the largest gains, adding 1,200 jobs combined. Financial activities and government jobs reported a larger decrease in jobs, losing 1,100 in the financial sector and 400 in government.
“While today’s data shows us how much has improved across the state over the last year, we know there is still room for further recovery and to get people back to the workforce,” Illinois Deputy Gov. Andy Manar said in a statement Thursday.
Despite the gains, some business leaders have pointed to a $300-a-week federal unemployment supplement program keeping workers from returning to their jobs. Half the states cut off such benefits in June or July, even though the program was set to run through the first week of September. In those 27 states, the number of people working or looking for a job has not increased more than those that kept the program running.
The supplement and two other federal emergency unemployment programs ended nationally Sept. 6, but America’s labor shortage persists as the number of job openings and hires decreased in August, according to data released Oct. 12 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Joe Wargo, co-owner of Joe’s Station House Pizza Pub in the Shoppes at College Hills, is shown Wednesday. “People can earn a living in our industry and make very good money doing it, but the inconsistencies drove those reliable, hardworking service people to find more consistent work,” he said. 
Gov. J.B. Pritzker steadfastly defended the $300 unemployment benefits when surrounding states cut them off prematurely and state business groups urged him to follow suit.
“Our job here is to make sure we’re creating jobs and helping people to rebuild the lives they had before the pandemic, and so we’re not going to pull the rug out from under people,” Pritzker said in May.
And Illinois has actually fared better than most states, as its labor force increased from about 6.1 million in January to 6.2 million in September, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The labor force participation rate increased from 61.9% to 62.8% in that same time.
The state’s unemployment rate decreased for a sixth consecutive month, the Illinois Department of Employment Security announced Friday. Still, unemployment remains stubbornly high at 7%, nearly double the pre-pandemic level. More than 435,000 people are still out of work.
Changes in delivery fees allow Joe’s Station House to deliver food to customers and still pay employees a living wage.
“The Pritzker administration and IDES are committed to enhancing this recovery period by working with employers and dislocated workers to assist them in their search for jobseekers and career opportunities,” Manar said.
Pritzker has previously said it was not the enhanced benefit but other factors, such as the lack of adequate child care, that explain why people are not returning to work.
The issue is not that there is a shortage of workers, but that a “conglomeration” of reasons with the pandemic as a backdrop have reached a crossroads, Illinois State University Professor of Economics Timothy Harris said.
“There are tons of workers that are available, but there’s not a lot of workers that are willing to take positions that are open,” Harris said.
Harris
The reasons vary widely and are not limited to health concerns about the coronavirus and its Delta variant. In few cases, people may have accumulated savings from stimulus checks, expanded unemployment benefits or child tax credits and are in a place where they don’t need to start a job yet, Harris said.
“It could be that there’s a mismatch of skills,” he added. “Yes, if I get laid off, I could go down the street and take any number of positions at a Lowe’s or a Taco Bell, but does that meet my skillset? I think that’s part of the mismatch that’s occurring.”
When Bill Inks was growing up, AB Hatchery & Garden Center was a coveted job for high school or college-aged students. Now, like many other businesses in the Bloomington-Normal area, the family-owned business is grappling with fewer employees and retention.
The reason? That’s a difficult question, said Inks.
“I think, in my mind, the biggest thing is the fear of COVID that is keeping people away,” said Inks, who owns the the garden center. He added that wages are an issue as well. “Minimum wage was not keeping up with the cost of living. Honestly, the minimum wage has been addressed in this state where we’re raising it every year now. I think the hardest thing is we’ve become more of a consuming country now, not a producing country.”
Joe’s Station House bar manager Jenny Muntz pours a cup of coffee for a patron on Wednesday.
In an effort to attract employees, Inks has raised starting wages to $13 per hour, and has created a health care and retirement plan for his workers.
Lesser-skilled and inexperienced workers have helped the Growing Grounds lawn and garden center in Bloomington stay afloat the past year and a half, store manager Jen Bicknell said.
“The high-schoolers and college kids were a godsend once summer rolled around,” said Bicknell, adding that the business struggled in spring to hire employees.
Growing Grounds really struggled to find laborers to operate machinery, unload trucks and plant trees. Bicknell said the vast majority of applications for those positions were unqualified and could not work the desired hours because of school.
While they did not reach desperation to the point of offering incentives or bonuses to hire, Growing Grounds, along with Prairie Gardens & Jeffrey Alans, touted Indeed as a force in yielding applications.
Jeffrey Alans store manager Reggie Valentine restocks herbs and vegetables at the store in Normal, Saturday, May 16, 2020. 
“We pulled out all the stops,” Valentine said, noting that the store has displayed many “now hiring” signs and set up a table filled with applications. “It’s nothing really different, we’ve just been using everything that we’ve ever used in the past.”
The gardening and furniture business in Normal has since had to reduce its hours to a 6 p.m. closing time instead of 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. at this time of year. Valentine said that’s mostly because they lack employees who can work nights. The store has 18 associates but they’d like to have about 25.
Retail and hospitality industries are not the only ones struggling to hire workers. As e-commerce booms, trucking companies are wrestling with fewer drivers, more deliveries, and congestion at pick-up points.
American Trucking Associations Chief Economist Bob Costello said in a Monday statement that there is a shortage of 80,000 drivers in America, an all-time high for the industry. That number could grow to 160,000 drivers by 2030.
In Illinois, 97% of trucking companies lack workers to transport goods, Matt Hart, executive director of the Illinois Trucking Association, told The Pantagraph this week. The association surveys its members on a monthly basis, he said.
“Consumer demand has been up 30% this year,” said Hart. “As people are wanting more and more stuff delivered, we just do not have the capacity for that large of an increase.”
He added, “The biggest challenge right now is that there are no available drivers. Our companies are advertising for drivers and they’re not getting any response.”
Locally, Nussbaum Transportation, a trucking company based in Hudson, is having to get creative in order to hire and retain drivers. That includes increasing driver pay by 15% to 17%, tripling advertising, sweetening paid time off benefits and adding health plan perks, said Jeremy Stickling, the company’s chief administrative officer.
The company is also partnering with Heartland Community College to train new hires to earn their commercial driver’s license.
“The schools aren’t producing as much, there’s not enough entrance, there’s a larger demand on drivers, partly due to the e-commerce explosion,” Stickling said, adding that the long-haul trucking industry is “a difficult lifestyle and people can burn out.”
Other businesses are following similar paths, offering higher wages and creating new health care and retirement plans in hopes of retaining workers.
Joe and Tony Wargo, co-owners of Joe’s Pub in Bloomington and Joe’s Station House and Pizza Pub in Normal, have experienced first-hand the complications brought on by the worker shortage.
In September the brothers had to temporarily close the kitchen at Joe’s Pub after their cook and manager quit unexpectedly on short notice. For a few days the pub allowed people to bring in food or order delivery as a way to keep their bartenders working.
Joe Wargo said they are now hiring full-time employees at higher wages, starting at $15 an hour or more depending on experience. They have also created a health care plan for employees and will set up retirement plans next.
The benefits, he said, may be ones the restaurant industry as a whole needs to think about implementing in order to retain workers.
“The stranglehold the pandemic and its mitigations had on the restaurant and hospitality industry for so long created a lot of inconsistencies in work environments,” Wargo said. “People can earn a living in our industry and make very good money doing it, but the inconsistencies drove those reliable, hardworking service people to find more consistent work.”
He added, “I don’t think the reliable, hardworking people, not just in this industry, but in any industry that was impacted, sat idly by, counting on a government-aided unemployment check. I think they may have used that to their benefit to go find something that was more reliable.”
Harris, the ISU professor, said the pandemic has shown how much bargaining power workers hold, now leading to increased wages and beefed-up benefits packages.
He also said the plethora of job openings has allowed people to become more choosy with their preferences.
“Workers do have power if they’re willing to say, ‘Nope, I’m not going back right now,’ and enough of them have done that, the wages go up,” Harris said.
But with wage increases come price increases. Harris said some of the higher pay rates are being offset by inflation; however, “When you look at the numbers, I would say that increases in low-wage jobs are more than offsetting some of the inflationary effects that we’ve seen.”
At the start of the pandemic, 24-year-old Kaitlyn Cook of Bloomington was just starting her career after graduating from ISU. In March 2020, she started working with a small, local leasing company that quickly had to grapple with a changing work environment.
The company pushed her to collect rent from tenants, many of whom she knew would not be able to pay due to layoffs, especially among hospitality workers. Eventually she left to find better work with Keller Williams Realty in Bloomington.
“There weren’t any jobs that I was looking online that I was interested in or qualified for,” Cook said of the job pool.

BACC Director Tom Frazier said he wanted to develop the program after hearing from local businesses and unions that they were worried by a shortage of workers in their fields. 
While she didn’t work in the restaurant or retail industry, Cook said she has seen what the worker shortage has done for businesses. She recalled how she went to an Olive Garden in St. Louis with a group of friends and they were told they would have to wait two hours for a table despite it not being a busy time.
The restaurant, she said, only had three or four people working.
As for why people are returning to those industries, Cook speculated that there are number of contributing factors. She wondered if it could be a reflection of the businesses’ treatment of employees, their willingness to compensate them, if they’re offering bonuses or health benefits, and more.
“I think it’s just a storm of everything,” said Cook. “I think a lot of people who were laid off in those industries, I’m sure people saw it as an opportunity to do something else, do something they really wanted to do.”
She added, “I think people who worked for those companies and were laid off are realizing that they were essential and should be paid or compensated appropriately and have more rights in that job.”
The Pantagraph’s Brenden Moore and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
Nearly six years after a local bakery moved its ovens from downtown Bloomington to Uptown Normal, the business is prepping to open its kitchen again from a new downtown storefront. 
Sugar Mama Bakery is on track to open sometime in early July from the former Subway restaurant, 109 W. Jefferson St., on the courthouse square. It will close its Normal location, 116 W. North St., before August. 
I caught owner Susie Tod on Tuesday as she and employees were unloading and moving baking supplies into the space, which features exposed brick, natural materials and plenty of natural light. 
“It’s not going to be a cookie-cutter design,” Tod joked with me as she moved a stand-mixer off a counter.
Tod closed her previous downtown Bloomington location, 405 N. Main St., in 2015 to focus her efforts on the Normal location.
The bakery, which specializes in artisan and custom-order baked goods, was first started around 2010 when Tod and then-partner Krista Gaff began baking out of Gaff’s home.
Tod’s plan had been to open the new Bloomington store on July 2, but that date will likely be pushed back, she said. She’s been met with some construction delays caused by the weekend’s storms and still needs to install some equipment. 
Other than adding another option for coffee and baked goods to downtown Bloomington, the business will fill a storefront that has sat vacant since mid-2019.
— Timothy Eggert 
The site of a former car wash on the city’s northeast side is set to feature a new car wash facility, to be built sometime this year. 
Developers Jeremy and Jeffrey Schoenherr want to build at 1509 E. Vernon Avenue a new automated On Track Car Wash, largely replacing the 10-bay do-it-yourself Car Wash Express that occupied the site between 1988 and 2010. 
The 0.92-acre lot sits on the corner of one of Bloomington’s busiest intersections and within one of the city’s major commercial corridors. It has remained vacant for the last 11 years, after the last facility was demolished.
The proposed car wash facility follows a design to house a franchise model of the Tommy Car Wash Systems, including a 110-foot tunnel for the automatic wash equipment and 15 outdoor vacuum bays.
City planning officials approved the new facility’s site plan in May, and the Bloomington City Council OK’d the plan in June. 
— Timothy Eggert
In addition to nearly every other staple fast-food chain, the city’s westside commercial stretch will soon host a Panda Express drive-thru and restaurant.  
CFT NV Developments LLC, based in Las-Vegas, Nev., wants to construct the 2,381-square-foot Chinese-American fast food restaurant at 1901 W. Market St. 
The property was previously used for a gas station from 1978 to the early 2010’s. It has sat vacant since 2017, after the Citgo station was demolished. 
The Bloomington Planning Commission approved the restaurant’s site plan earlier this month. It will be before the city council on July 26. 
The restaurant’s construction would mark the second new fast-food business added to West Market Street in 2021.
A site plan for a new 3,900-square-foot structure commercial structure at 1514 W. Market St. — replacing the old Grand Café West Side restaurant —was approved by the city council in April. A Domino’s Pizza restaurant will occupy one half of the new building.
— Timothy Eggert
The build-out of a new sandwich shop on the city’s far eastside is progressing, with construction expected to be complete sometime in August.
Crews are altering the interior of unit 103 at the Eastland Commons, 305 N. Veterans Pkwy, to accommodate a Jersey Mike’s Subs restaurant. The space was previously occupied by a TD Ameritrade office.  
A $130,000 commercial building permit for the conversion was issued in late May, and when I dropped in this week a contractor on-site said most of the rough-in was complete. 
The sandwich chain offers east coast-style subs and competes directly with Jimmy John’s and Subway. Its Bloomington location will be the first in McLean County.
— Timothy Eggert  
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Construction of the new Texas Roadhouse restaurant on Bloomington’s far east side is progressing, with the location set to open at the end of August.
Amanda Norton, spokeswoman for the Louisville, Kentucky-based restaurant chain, said that construction crews faced some delays because of last month’s extreme rain events, but that they’re still on track to open before fall.
The restaurant is being erected between the former Toys R Us store and Olive Garden in the Bloomington Commons shopping center, 1701 E. Empire St., where Barnes & Noble, H&R Block and Schnucks also are located.
Another slice of the pizza business, topped with video gambling, is set to open this summer on the city’s near east side.  
Lu Lu’s Pizza, 802 E. Washington St., will host a soft opening on July 22 with a full opening on July 23. Preliminary hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Sunday. 
The business’ anticipated launch from the northeast corner of Washington and Clinton streets comes nearly two years after Allen and co-owner Carl Muench first approached city officials about plans for the bar and restaurant, which will also feature video gaming machines.
Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.
Workers weigh options before job hunting NATION, A11

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The Gibson City Council passed a resolution Monday to spend emergency funds on a $250,000 contract for the Gibson Area House Rehab Foundation.

Bond was set Thursday for a Hazel Crest man in McLean County custody in connection to an August shooting and carjacking in Bloomington.

The Illinois Commerce Commission has approved an agreement to put in new automatic warning devices where County Road 2250 East crosses the Norfolk Southern track.

The autopsy results released this week in the Jelani Day case have not changed his family’s message.

Nearly 90 minutes of public comments punctuated the McLean County Unit 5 school board meeting Wednesday night.

The Twin Cities were abuzz Saturday with autumn-themed events from dawn to dusk.
Joe’s Station House bar manager Jenny Muntz delivers coffee on Wednesday. About half the states ended the $300-a-week federal supplement for unemployed Americans early, cutting it off in June or July even though the federal government kept the program going through the first week of September.
Joe Wargo, co-owner of Joe’s Station House Pizza Pub in the Shoppes at College Hills, is shown Wednesday. “People can earn a living in our industry and make very good money doing it, but the inconsistencies drove those reliable, hardworking service people to find more consistent work,” he said. 
Changes in delivery fees allow Joe’s Station House to deliver food to customers and still pay employees a living wage.
Joe’s Station House bar manager Jenny Muntz pours a cup of coffee for a patron on Wednesday.
Jeremy Stickling, left, chief administrative officer for Nussbaum Transportation, and Cory Adams, senior instructional administrator, discuss the effects of trailer loads as they use a trucking simulator to train students at the business in Hudson. Nussbaum has had to implement strategies to hire and retain workers amid a truck-driver shortage.
Jeffrey Alans store manager Reggie Valentine restocks herbs and vegetables at the store in Normal, Saturday, May 16, 2020. 
Harris
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