Job seekers attend a March health care job fair in New York.
December 02, 2013

Unemployment Benefit Program Set To Expire At Year's End

More than 1 million people will see their extended unemployment benefits immediately cut off at the end of the month if Congress doesn't act.

An emergency federal benefit program was put in place during the recession to help those who are unemployed longer than six months. That allowed them to get as much as a year and a half of help while they searched for work, even after state benefits ran out.

But without congressional action, the program will expire at the end of December, meaning the most anyone could get would be six months of unemployment benefits. In some states, it would be even less.

Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., recently held a press conference with several other congressional Democrats to move the issue "from the back burner to the front burner."

"To say to people at Christmastime: When you look in your Christmas sock you're going to find a lump of coal from the Congress — that's wrong," says Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash. "And then we're going to go home and have a great celebration and have a great time, and leave an awful lot of people in the cold. This has to be done."

But Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., says there simply isn't an appetite for renewing this program again, five years after it started as a temporary emergency measure at the height of the recession.

"I think that's going to be a pretty tough sell," Cole says. "They've been extended well beyond the normal boundaries ... so I think it is going to be very difficult to get that extension."

Advocates estimate that continuing the program for another year would cost about $25 billion. But for Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., it may be less an argument about dollars and deficits as it is about policy.

"If the desire is to change the way we deal with unemployment in this country permanently, we need to have that debate," says Woodall. "But what we did was never intended to be permanent. It was intended to be a very temporary solution to a very temporary crisis."

But for about 4 million people who count themselves among the long-term unemployed, the crisis drags on, says Judy Conti, an advocate with the National Employment Law Project.

"I would be lying if I said people in Congress weren't fatigued by having to keep doing this, but at the same time the long-term are fatigued from having to search for work in a bad economy," Conti says. "So, it's not time yet to remove the federal safety net from the unemployed."

One of the long-term unemployed is Linda Sandefur, who lives in the hard-hit state of Michigan.

"I have a master's degree and bachelor's degree, 20 years of work experience," she says. "This is like my third go-around on unemployment. And for me, the American dream is dead."

Sandefur says that if her unemployment benefits are cut off, she won't be able to pay the mortgage on the house she shares with her mother. The irony is that Sandefur has spent a big part of her career helping other people find jobs.

"But even having the knowledge hasn't made it any easier," Sandefur says.

Her last temporary gig ended in June. And she's been applying for just about anything, no matter how low the pay or the experience required. Still, the search continues.

"Earlier today I did find a couple of things that did sound a little closer to me," Sandefur says. "So I've got to do a little follow-up with them and convince them that I'm the person they're looking for."

But every time she follows up on a job, she says they tell her they've gotten more than 100 other applications.

Democrats say they hope a benefits extension can be added to must-pass legislation before the end of the year.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans will take a look at any plan Democrats come up with, but adds: "We think it would be better for them to focus on helping get our economy moving again so more of the unemployed can find jobs."


November 07, 2013

Senate OKs Gay Rights Bill Banning Discrimination

The Senate has approved a bill outlawing workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.

The vote reflected the nation's rapidly evolving attitude toward gay rights nearly two decades after Congress rejected same-sex marriage. The final tally was 64-32.

Despite the bipartisan vote, the measure's chances in the House are dim. Speaker John Boehner calls the shots, and he opposes the bill.

Gay rights advocates hailed Senate passage as a major victory in a year of significant change.

The Supreme Court in June affirmed gay marriage and granted federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Illinois is on the verge of becoming the 15th state to legalize gay marriage along with the District of Columbia.


November 04, 2013

Gay Rights Bill Clears First Hurdle In Senate

The U.S. Senate is moving ahead with legislation to bar employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

While supporters say the plan won’t make a huge difference in Illinois, it could have a far-reaching impact nationally

Two years ago, Illinois Attorney Joanie Rae Wimmer represented a transgendered person who worked as a taxi driver.

“Her employer treated her differently; called her a faggot, an abomination, refused to repair her taxi even though they repaired the taxis of the other drivers,” Wimmer explained.

Wimmer said her client was illegally fired, and ultimately sued the taxi company, which was ordered to pay more than $100,000 for discriminating against her.  Wimmer said this was the first case of its kind protected under the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.

Now, Wimmer said she hopes Congress passes a similar measure called the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which the Senate is expected to vote on this week.

“It’s a necessary bill because there’s many states that don’t have those kinds of protections,” she said.

On Monday, the Senate voted 61-30 to advance the legislation for further discussion. Both Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) back the plan. Kirk took to the Senate floor for the first time since suffering a stroke to talk about his support for the legislation.

“This is not a major change to law. I would say it’s already the law in 21 states,” Kirk said. “I think it’s particularly appropriate for an Illinois Republican to speak on behalf of this measure in the true tradition of Everett McKinley Dirksen and Abraham Lincoln, men who gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.”


All Democrats in the Senate and at least five Republicans are expected to vote for the bill, but its chances in the Republican-controlled House are uncertain. 

Congressman John Shimkus (R-Collinsville) said the bill in unnecessary. Republican House Speaker John Boehner remains opposed to it, arguing that it will lead to frivolous lawsuits and undercut job creation.
 
The Obama administration has said passage of the bill is long overdue.  

 

job fair
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
October 22, 2013

Job Growth Was Disappointing, But Some See Reasons For Hope

When it finally came out Tuesday, the September jobs report — delayed for 18 days by the government shutdown — showed a labor market moving forward. But the pace was slow enough to prompt many economists to view it as a letdown.

Job growth "is disappointing, given that employment is still down by about 1.8 million from its peak prior to the recession," Gus Faucher, senior economist with PNC Financial Services Group, said in his analysis.

The Labor Department said employers added 148,000 jobs last month — the 43rd straight month of growth. The unemployment rate slipped to 7.2 percent, down a 10th of a point from August. Still, the number of people with paychecks remained lower than before the Great Recession, with many potential workers not even in the game. They were sitting at home, rather than trying to find jobs.

The report showed labor-force participation was unchanged in September at 63.2 percent, but that rate's "long-term decent will continue" unless employers give sidelined workers more reason to resume job searches, Doug Handler, an economist with IHS Global Insight, wrote in his assessment.

Still, beneath the disappointing data, one could find some reasons for optimism in the new year. For one thing, economists are virtually unanimous in saying the relatively weak labor market makes it more likely the Federal Reserve will continue its efforts to stimulate growth.

Throughout the recession and weak recovery, the Fed has used all of its monetary tools to push down interest rates. One of those efforts involves a bond-buying program that has the effect of restraining long-term interest rates. In June, the Fed indicated that U.S. economic growth was getting strong enough that the central bank might begin to "taper" down its stimulus effort.

But given this month's economic disruptions caused by the federal government shutdown — combined with last month's sluggish job growth — the Fed probably will not act until 2014. "A December taper remains possible, but now is increasingly unlikely," Handler said.

Translation: Interest rates probably will still be low on home mortgages come spring.

Meanwhile, the September jobs report showed an increase in construction jobs, up about 20,000 workers. A separate report Tuesday from the Commerce Department showed that in August, private residential construction spending hit the highest level in five years.

So the real estate market may look pretty good for the spring buying season, with fresh inventory and cheap mortgages. A surge in homebuying would boost growth for lots of Americans, in construction, retail, landscaping and so on.

But that optimism assumes Congress will avoid another shutdown and debt ceiling crisis this winter. Congress has set a schedule for itself to complete a budget in January and resolve debt-ceiling issues by Feb. 7. If those federal fiscal matters are resolved in the winter, the economy could brighten with the blossoms. "Job growth should be stronger in 2014 as the drag from fiscal policy on economic growth lessens," PNC's Faucher said.


October 21, 2013

Champaign School Board Approves Teachers' Contract

On Monday night, the Champaign School Board unanimously approved a new three-year contract for teachers.

The agreement includes step increases on a negotiated salary schedule, and revisions in sick leave to include nieces, nephews and partners in a civil union.

(Key provisions of the contract are listed below)

The teachers union ratified the agreement last week, after months of intense negotiations with the board. School Board President Laurie Bonnett said she is satisfied with the deal.

“I’m happy to be done,” Bonnett said. “I’m happy that the teachers overwhelmingly supported it, so that shows we were on the right path to reach a conclusion for a three-year deal. It’s best for the teachers and their families as well. And everybody can get back to what they’re supposed to be doing  - teaching.”

Champaign Federation of Teachers President Cathy Mannen said she is also happy with the contract. Mannen said one thing not included in the agreement that the union wanted was less time to have to do non-teaching duties that pull teachers away from the classroom.

“You know, it’s still an issue that we want to be working on,” Mannen said. “But as we worked to get to this tentative agreement that was something that our team decided to withdraw from the table at that point in time.”

 

The collective bargaining agreement includes the following provisions:

  • The parties agreed to revise language within the sick leave provision to include nieces, nephews and partners in a civil union as within the definition of “immediate family” for purposes of sick leave use.
     
  • The parties agreed to revise language within the military leave provision to conform to current state and federal laws as well as District practice.
     
  • For the 2013-2014 school year, the parties agreed that two plans would be offered, the POS-C 1000 80/50 Premium ($537) and the POS-C 2000 80/50 ($502).  The Board would contribute $537 per member per month toward the cost of employee health insurance. For the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years, the Board will contribute the cost of any increase in the single health insurance premium up to an aggregate of 18% or $634 per member per month.  In addition, the Board will contribute the cost of any increase in the single dental insurance premium up to $35 per member per month.
     
  • The parties agreed to eliminate the Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) provided for in the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement.
     
  • The parties agreed to clarify language related to employee pension contributions to indicate that, should the amount required to be contributed to TRS by the employee be increased legislatively, the employee shall pay any amount over the employee contribution as of July 1, 2012.​
     
  • The increase negotiated to the salary schedule for the 2013-14 school year will be retroactive to July 1, 2013. The parties agreed that teachers on the salary schedule will receive increases in the following percentages:
  1. 2013-14 school year: Step increase plus 3.0% to base
  2. 2014-15 school year: Step increase plus 2.25% to base
  3. 2015-16 school year: Step increase plus 2.0% to base
  • Teachers who are “off schedule” will receive increases in the following percentages:
  1. 2013-14 school year: 3.0%
  2. 2014-15 school year: 3.0%
  3. 2015-16 school year: 3.0%
  • Non-novice teachers in their first semester of service shall be provided a Transition Mentor at the non-novice teacher’s request.  The Transition Mentor will be paid a stipend of $500 for the semester.
     
  • Instructional Technology Coaches will be given an extended contract of 12 days allocated before and/or after the school year to be determined by the appropriate supervising administrator.
     
  • All instances of extra duty compensation contained within the Collective Bargaining Agreement will increase from $30/hour to $32.50/hour.

October 21, 2013

Mayor: Danville Needs Unemployment Service Workers

Danville’s mayor says he worries a plan to re-locate several unemployment service workers from Danville to Champaign will come on the backs of residents in his city seeking assistance.

This is the latest cost-saving effort by the Illinois Department of Employment Security to merge unemployment services in the state. Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said he understands the need to consolidate service, but in a letter to Gov. Pat Quinn, emphasized his concerns about what that could mean for Danville.

 “Yes, consolidate the services,” Eisenhauer told Illinois Public Media. “I absolutely agree that those services should be consolidated just as they’re doing all over the state. All I’m saying is consolidate those offices in an area that’s experiencing double digit unemployment.”

The Danville staff will go from 11 workers to two, but there won’t be any layoffs The Illinois Department of Employment Security is encouraging people who are out of work to apply for unemployment assistance on the agency's website or by calling a toll-free number.


October 17, 2013

Sept. Illinois Unemployment Rate Release Delayed

The Illinois Department of Employment Security says it will indefinitely delay the release of statewide unemployment data for September because of the partial federal-government shutdown.

Department Director Jay Rowell said Friday that labor-market analysts at his federally funded agency and at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics were furloughed during the shutdown that ended Thursday. Those analysts comb job-related data to determine the state unemployment rate each month.
 
The jobless rate for September was due to be released Friday. No new date has been set. Unemployment in Illinois was 9.2 percent. That's one of the highest rates in the country.
 
The department said its monthly local economic reports that were due to be released on Oct. 24 will also be indefinitely delayed.


October 16, 2013

Champaign Teachers Ratify Contract Agreement

On Wednesday night, teachers in the Champaign School District overwhelmingly voted in favor of a tentative contract agreement with the school board.

Champaign Federation of Teachers President Cathy Mannen said the agreement still needs to be approved by the board, which is expected to happen on Monday.

Unit 4 teachers have been working without a contract since the beginning of the school year.


October 08, 2013

Champaign School District, Union Reach Tentative Agreement

After five months of contract negotiations, the Champaign School Board and the union representing Unit 4 teachers have reached a tentative agreement.

The two sides met for more than eight hours last night, and had been at odds over a host of issues, including salaries and the amount of time teachers are asked to take on non-teaching duties. Contract talks on Monday were supposed to include a federal mediator, but that did not happen because of the partial government shutdown.

Just before 1 a.m., Champaign Federation of Teachers President Cathy Mannen emerged from the Mellon Administrative Building to greet a large group of teachers waiting outside.

“Everything you’ve done all along the way has made a difference, and we couldn’t have done our work tonight without your support – both your encouraging words and just your presence,” Mannen told supporters. “It really mattered. So, thanks so much for hanging out until the end. You guys rock.”

Mannen said the next step is for the CFT to set up a meeting for its members to vote on ratifying the tentative agreement, but she would not provide details about the agreement itself or a timetable for when a vote might happen.

“I trust that our team made a great deal,” said Heidi Bjerke, an instructional technologist with the school district. “There’s no doubt in my mind that they did a good job. So, I’m just interested in hearing what all the details are and voting.”

The school district said it is committed to bringing resolution to the negotiations in a way that is fair and does not disrupt students’ education.

“The board and the administration are very pleased with our discussions,” said School Board President Laurie Bonnett. “CFT will be talking to teachers, and hopefully we’ll be moving forward from that.”


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