Although the unemployment rate currently stands at 9.8 percent nationally, in Illinois it has already crossed the double-figure threshold with 10.5 percent of individuals still actively seeking work.
Contractors and construction workers have been especially impacted by the job losses despite the passing of the Federal Recovery Act last April for the purpose of creating work for contractors on railway and bridge projects throughout the state.
To address the steadily rising jobless rates, two groups have been formed to put Chicagoans – particularly West Side minorities – back to work. The House Democratic Taskforce to Increase Minority Employment, set up by state Rep. La ‘Shawn Ford (8th district), and the Westside Contractors are seeking to help unemployed minorities.
Ford has been working on convening a taskforce to address minority employment since September 2008. He says that once he approached fellow House members, including state Reps. Barbara Currie (25th district) and Mary Flowers (31st district), about his plan, everyone was extremely interested.
There are 15 members of the house on the committee.
“[Reps. Flowers and Currie] were very open to the taskforce,” said Ford. “They have been working for years on these issues themselves and felt that it was time to act.”
On Oct. 29, Ford and his colleagues from the House will meet with members of the governor’s office to hold the taskforce’s first meeting.
Ford said among the issues to consider are looking at the reasons why minority unemployment is currently higher than the state’s average.
“We need to assure that African-American unemployment is directly addressed. While unemployment overall in the state is at 10-and-a-half percent, 14 percent of blacks in Illinois are unemployed, a figure that does not even count recent college graduates or ex-offenders who may not have applied for unemployment benefits yet.”
The taskforce also seeks to address the disparity in minority recipients in stimulus funds for state contracts from the Illinois Department of Transportation as part of the Recovery package.
According to a poll conducted by WBEZ Public Radio, minorities and women accounted for only eight percent of stimulus recipients for state contracts in Illinois.
“We need to make sure that if these contractors are union members and they are paying their union fees that they are put in the position to bid on these contracts,” said Ford, adding that the state needs to assure equality in its vetting for qualified contractors.
The Westside Contractors organization is also working to address the relationship between state developers and contractors of color.
The group was formed after members of a few West Side organizations, including the South Austin Coalition and Westside Health Authority, established the Austin Organizing Network in March 2009 at the Mandell Methodist Church.
Out of these meetings came the realization that minority contractors were being disproportionately impacted by the continued economic downturn and the recovery package was not helping them secure state contracts.
Consequently, the Westside Contractors was founded in late May 2009 to specifically address this problem. The group, led by chairman Arnold Bearden, reaches out to minority contractors, assisting them with finding project bids and building relationships with developers.
“Our goal is to build a network of contractors,” said Bearden. “We help construction workers, landscapers and plumbers make their services known to potential clients. This information is made available at places like the South Austin Coalition and Westside Health Authority. It benefits the entire community when contractors on the West Side get work.”
Currently, the group is working on a Web site that would allow the contractors’ information to be accessible to developers; however, for now, it is still gathering the information of the workers and conveying their availability through “word of mouth.”
According to Bearden, approximately 200 workers, composed of contractors and tradesmen, have submitted their professional credentials to the Westside Contractors for help finding jobs.
Bearden, who works as a boxcar mechanic for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, says that the numbers signifying a shortage of stimulus funds granted to minority contractors may be the result of ineffective networking practices by some businesses of color.
“I think part of the problem is that, many times, minority businesses are behind the curve when it comes to knowing how to obtain stimulus money for their companies,” said Bearden.
“What we want to do is get their names and expertise out there so that developers can know who they are, what they can do, and how much they would charge,” said Bearden. “It’s hard to qualify for a contract with the state if you don’t know that the bid is even available. Our network wants to break the wall down between the workers and the developers.”
On Nov. 3, Ford and the Westside Contractors will attend the South Austin Coalition community meeting at Friendship Baptist Church, 5200 W. Jackson, at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the proposed construction of a West Side campus for Chicago State University.