As it has throughout the country, COVID-19 has brought significant unemployment to Rockford and its surroundings. The city and local companies are working to combat it.
The Illinois Department of Employment Security reports the area’s unemployment rate was almost 20% in May.
Businesses declared “non-essential,” such as restaurants and hospitality, suffered because of closures, but other sectors, such as the aerospace industry and sports tourism have also taken it on the chin. Nathan Bryant is the president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council.
“We’ve been hit pretty hard because of the way we’re tied to the world with our production and what we do here locally in terms of sports leisure and that business for our region,” he said.
In a more general sense, businesses have also faced the conundrum of trying to retain a skilled workforce, but keep their finances in the black. Rockford Chamber of Commerce President Einar Forsman explained.
“Without so much of a crystal ball about where we’re heading and how long this will go, many have had to make the sacrifice of laying off or furloughing key employees and having a fear of not being able to get them back or when they can get them back,” said Forsman.
To address this, both companies and local government are adopting different ways to shore up operations and bring back workers. Bryant said industry can keep production up by manufacturing pandemic-related products or taking more government contracts.
“Many of our companies that are tied to aerospace and aerospace productions are shifting at least for the near term into other spaces where they are doing more Department of Defense work,” said Bryant.
Forsman said businesses are also transitioning to more remote work.
“There’s been quite a few businesses staying open and running from home and so on," Forsman explained, "but just not that visibility and just now we’re starting to see that liven up a little bit.”
To support these enterprises, governments are taking different measures. Karl Franzen is the director of community and economic development for the City of Rockford. He said part of this includes easing certain mandates. Examples include suspending fees for water bills and utilities, and helping restaurants better implement curbside service.
“And as they’ve opened up, they’ve been doing great with signage," he said. "They’ve been doing great with marketing. They’ve been doing great with promoting with their employees to wear their face coverings and promote the confidence for the public.”
On the financial front, Franzen said aid can come from federal agencies such as the Small Business Administration, the state, or even a local microloan program.
“These are owners who specifically either don’t qualify or have barriers to receiving loans through either traditional funding sources or the SBA products,” said Franzen.
But these federal programs have proven more complicated than expected for some businesses. Forsman said many were initially looking for more direct sources of money.
“People who initially jumped at the opportunity realized the conditions that came with it and returned their money or had to slow their process because they realized there were several conditions to go into place before they can seek their money being forgiven.”
As a result, funds weren’t sought as quickly from the Paycheck Protection or Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs. Forsman added that the Chamber has also been providing more assistance to businesses in, of all things, human resources.
“Many of these small businesses have never had to deal with these extended leave options, these unemployment options, and these waivers that the Federal Government put into place that typically don’t affect small employers but do," he said. "They have to walk their way through this and understand what they’re doing. It’s a new world for them and they need some guidance.”
With many current job holders working from home, the relationship between employer and employee has also shifted. Bryant said this can be a mixed bag.
“Trying to work from home, managing a young family, not having childcare programs or having childcare programs but you as a parent still are not yet comfortable, present unique challenges.”
At the same time, Forsman said, some businesses find it has advantages for them, and may want to keep the practice even after COVID-19 is no longer a threat.
“Their eyes have been opened up as to how that works for their own organization," he said. "Maybe that’s something they’ll continue and that may involve a de-investment in physical space.”
Even if and when it’s brought under control, Franzen said the disruption caused by the virus won’t just be a blip on the radar.
“We know this pandemic is going to have a long-lasting impact and that we’re going to see elevated levels of unemployment for the foreseeable future.”
And he says governments and businesses will have to continue to do their best to adapt to the economic challenges presented by COVID-19.