REPORT: Illinois Lost 250,000 Workers from 2019 to 2021. Here’s Who They Were.

As COVID-19 Impacted Workers and the Economy, New Analysis Looks Back and Details which Workers Were Most Likely Out of Illinois’ Workforce   

La Grange, IL: Between 2019 and 2021, total employment in Illinois shrank by a total of 4% (251,000 workers), with disproportionate impacts felt amongst workers who were older, less educated, from rural communities, parents with school-aged children, not union members, and employed in food service, hospitality, and office support occupations—according to a new report by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Read the Report, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Illinois Workers: Data from the Current Population Survey, 2019-2021.”

“COVID-19 seriously disrupted our economy, and fundamentally re-shaped the labor force,” said ILEPI Executive Director and report coauthor Frank Manzo IV. “While just about every type of worker, occupation, and industry has been affected by the pandemic in some way, this report looks back and details key differences in impacts that can inform the response of employers and policymakers in its aftermath.”

In particular, researchers noted that while Illinois recovered more than half the jobs it lost during the first year of the pandemic by the end of 2021, it still had about 250,000 fewer workers than it had in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

“While the evidence suggests that the pandemic led to early retirements for many older workers, it is clear that it has had an especially persistent impact on industries that rely on face-to-face interactions, do not require college degrees, and often have lower levels of job quality, safety, and support for working parents,” said ILEPI Research Associate and study coauthor Grace Dunn. “These dynamics have affected the recovery in food service, office support, manufacturing, and personal care occupations, as well as for the younger workers and people of color who were disproportionately employed in these jobs prior to the onset of COVID-19.”

Just as the data revealed vulnerability for certain types of jobs, industries, and demographic groups, it showed resilience for others. Specifically, researchers found that college-educated workers, jobs that could be performed remotely, essential workers, and union members tended to be better protected from pandemic-related employment losses. It also revealed that certain segments of the economy—such as transportation and material moving occupations and the wholesale and retail industry tied to the growth of e-commerce during the pandemic—experienced substantial employment growth.

“Ultimately, the data reveals that occupations offering higher levels of job quality, access to modern technology and infrastructure, and those that allow remote or hybrid work options have been the quickest to recover,” added study coauthor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Professor, and PMCR Director Dr. Robert Bruno. “As industries seek to combat labor shortages, these factors can offer employers and policymakers alike a roadmap for improving labor force participation across many other sectors.”  

While employment gains have continued in 2022 and Illinois has now recovered most of the jobs lost during the pandemic, researchers pointed to measures to improve childcare affordability, guarantee paid sick leave and predictive scheduling, and encourage wider adoption of flexible and hybrid work arrangements as ways to continue the recovery and support the return of more parents to the labor force. They encouraged expansion of collective bargaining and job quality measurement tools to help ensure more sectors and industries are offering market-competitive wages, benefits, and working conditions. Finally, they urged policymakers to consider better aligning public investments with the evolving dynamics of the post-COVID economy, with a particular focus on e-commerce, hospitality, and college affordability.

“Alongside new state and federal investments in broadband infrastructure, the data suggests that intentional efforts to promote Illinois as a hub for e-commerce and warehousing industries offers high-growth potential that could more than offset any permanent losses in other sectors, such as manufacturing,” Dunn said. “Equally important, with the travel and tourism industry hit particularly hard, we should double-down on incentives and initiatives to restore Chicago’s place as a hospitality and convention hub. Finally, we need to recognize that the data continues to establish a strong link between educational attainment and employment, and consider actions to improve college affordability as investments that will deliver substantial returns for employers and workers alike.”   

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonprofit research organization which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families.   

The Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois investigates the working conditions of workers in today’s economy to elevate public discourse aimed at reducing poverty, create more stable forms of employment, and promote middle-class jobs.