Smile Politely

C-U’s labor shortage: Child care, businesses and transportation

White and black MTD bus at a bus stop.
Anna Longworth

There is a labor shortage in Champaign, and Champaign County has been affected in three main areas: child care, businesses, and transportation.

Labor expert Dr. Andrew Weaver from the University of Illinois, School of Labor and Employment Relations, dives into these problems, explaining that:

The American employment system is very much what we call a spot market relationship. There’s not really a long-term commitment between employer and employee. The weakness of that is [seen] when a big change comes along and unemployment spikes to a high level. That’s initially very bad for the worker, but then it’s very bad for the employer when they suddenly want to hire a bunch of workers, and there are none to be found.

As you can imagine, that big change was the COVID-19 pandemic. It changed Champaign County drastically in education, workplace culture, birth rates and death rates. As can be expected, these changes also affected labor. In Champaign County, there has been a spike in a labor shortage. At the end of 2019, Champaign County’s unemployment rate was 2.7%. In 2020, it was 10.6%. Thankfully, as of 2022, it is as low as 3.2%. This should be excellent news; however, this rate fails to keep up/include the high turnovers occurring in jobs and how that is drastically affecting our community. 

Let’s look into it.

Child care for low-income families

Megan Quigley, a mother of an autistic son in Villa Grove, discussed her recent troubles with child care with Illinois Public Media. “I’ve had more than a dozen child care workers in the past few years,” she explains. “I would be physically sick from how much I spend on child care this month,” she adds. “There are some months that I can spend maybe 900 to 1100 a month, and then there are others I don’t even want to think about.”

It is worth noting that the economy stands to lose billions due to child care shortages because parents cannot go to work or are willing to forgo employment in higher-earning areas. The state of this workforce is highly unfortunate. Not only is child care expensive, but it is even worse when workers leave quicker and quicker each time. Ms. Quigley is not the only one suffering from this problem. For example, as recently as February 6th, Crisis Nursery of Urbana, a crucial and affordable child care option for struggling families, announced that they would be reducing their overnight care services. This move was introduced due to a “staffing shortage.” A statement from the Crisis Nursery team expounds on this, stating that “the Nursery is working quickly to recruit, hire, onboard, and train third shift staff with a goal to be at full capacity by March 1.”

In this time, the 520 children they usually care for and their families will be greatly impacted, with heads of families having to scrounge for child care where they can get it. 

Julie Kashen, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, explains that the child care industry has been in crisis for decades, but the pandemic only made this worse. Historically, this sector of care has been rooted in racial inequities. Kashen explains that:

“During the time of slavery, enslaved black women were tasked with caring for children and to the detriment of their own children…So it was something that wasn’t only free, but it was coerced labor to do this work.”

Since then, work in this industry has been underpaid and undervalued. That’s why it’s no mystery to Kashen that care workers today are still underpaid and undervalued. Even as parents are paying as much as they can, the people working in child care are not being paid well.

President Biden proposed the Build Back Better Act in 2021 to lower family child care costs. The goal was that no family would pay more than 7% of their income for child care. Unfortunately, the bill was stalled in the Senate, and many families continue to pay as much as $1150 per month on child care. Depending on household incomes, that could be as much as 40% for a family making $35,000.

Fortunately, one saving grace comes from the Income Eligibility Brackets for Child Care Subsidies available to Champaign residents. You can learn more about your eligibility here and survive the effects of this labor shortage.


Issues surrounding child care labor are also echoed within businesses. A reporter for CU-Citizen Access interviewed six businesses— Esquire Lounge, Cracked, World Harvest, Black Dog, Maize Mexican Grill, and Jarling’s Custard Cup — about the labor shortage in Champaign-Urbana

Common problems discussed between these varying businesses came from keeping staff and various supply chain problems. Outside of issues retaining staff, let’s remember that Champaign County possesses such a unique population that relies almost exclusively on the presence or absence of students. 

Jarlings Custard Cup owner Ashlee Rhodes details her experience depending on this population. She says: 

Students going back to school [after the pandemic] who weren’t in school originally were used to remote learning. […] They thought that maybe they could handle doing the job, the school, the personal life and the family life, but unfortunately, it seemed as if most of them were dropping off because they couldn’t handle work on top of in-school learning.

To help the community, the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission (RPC) created and implemented changes surrounding the labor shortage. The goal was to better serve residents of C-U, bolster opportunities for workers to learn and offer ways for businesses to have greater access to their labor pool.

Initiatives to this effect, directly from their report, include:

Serving Residents: RPC staff work with adult and dislocated workers in job training. RPC staff also make referrals to One-Stop partners for additional support services. Thankfully, most youths are served by community and educational organizations funded partly by RPC.

Serving Business:

On-the-Job Training- In an OJT, an employer provides training to a new employee, and RPC provides supportive services, reimburses the employer for wages paid to the trainee, and works to coordinate services within the local workforce area.

Incumbent Worker Training- In an IWT project, an employer works with RPC to design a training plan that will lead to employee retention, job creation, and/or an internal promotion and wage gain. This has been great because it was rewarding to see small businesses take advantage of this grant opportunity.

Job Posting and Recruitment-With recruiting talent being a common concern among employers and stakeholders, it is good to remind all employers to go to Illinois Job Link, create an employer account, post jobs, and review resumes. Job seekers who engage the One Stop post their resumes here.


The Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District was also affected by the pandemic. Since then, a shortage has led to CUMTD implementing service reductions to some of its bus routes.

Amy Snyder, chief of staff for MTD, found that, even before the pandemic, 60-65% of bus drivers who resigned from their posts did so within the first 12 months.

“Those first 12 months are tough,” Snyder said. “You’re working midnight SafeRides, or working weekends, and that’s hard for people.” 

This high turnover rate affects how the rest of C-U works. Outside of students, workers and residents rely on this system. Setbacks in this area affect the economy as well as the livability of the city.

Because these issues are pervasive throughout C-U businesses, MTD leaders are becoming more creative in recruiting and keeping their employees. They are using the resources available to other businesses to attract new drivers,  and  MTD drivers will only have to wait 90 days instead of a year for their health insurance to take effect. The premiums will be paid in full by MTD. Training wages have also increased, and hourly pay is becoming more competitive.

Overall, Champaign County is reflecting on these national trends in its struggle to handle labor shortages here. We hope to see more for our workers as well as businesses and hope for a positive year moving forward.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Trude Namara, and Mara Thacker. 

More Articles