Earlier this week, I participated in a press conference about the inadequate state services being offered to Illinois residents during these trying times and discussed the sentiment of downstate residents being overlooked during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a legislator, I make it a priority to have open conversations with all my constituents, and an overwhelming sentiment by downstate citizens is feeling that we take the backseat to Chicago by Governor Pritzker.
While some of this feeling stems from attitudes that have long existed in Illinois, I feel it is imperative for people like myself in leadership roles to try changing that perception. Chicago is a great city and a wonderful asset to the entire state, and we will only really thrive if the Chicago and downstate Illinois all prosper together.
Much of the frustration from downstate stems from the governing power existing primarily in one highly populated area. For example, decisions are being made on things like production agriculture that are vital to the economic well-being of Illinois – and these decisions are made by those who have little or no knowledge on production agriculture. Without the input of experts and leaders in this subject area when decisions are being made, this ultimately results in resentment.
COVID-19 has negatively affected all of us in various ways, and I have supported the Governor and most of the actions he has taken to save lives and flatten the curve. However, we have also seen how differently each part of the state is being affected by the virus. This means a one-size-fits-all approach to how the state is handling coronavirus is not the best avenue – and the administration should be strongly considering a regional approach when moving forward.
Although there are several “hot spots” of infection outside of the Chicago,, one area being in Champaign-Urbana, a major portion of downstate Illinois has not experienced the high impact rate that Chicago has, due to lighter population density.
Many of the most economically challenged communities in the state are in downstate Illinois. That makes the economic fallout from the shutdown order particularly hard in those communities while they are not seeing the same threat level from the virus.
Sadly, what is making this much harder for everyone across Illinois to grapple with is the lack of efficiency in the Department of Employment Security and the Department of Economic Opportunities. These two agencies are supposed to be assisting citizens with applying and obtaining their unemployment benefits during these trying times, as well as helping small businesses across the state stay afloat until the order can be lifted and operations can resume. In the last few weeks, we have found that not only are these agencies slow to respond, there are times where they are not responding at all, and this is very concerning for all of us.
Everyone understands the system is under great strain, but we cannot help guide our constituents through the process and help departments alleviate their backlogs if the departments are unresponsive to those of us on the ground. Our offices are the ones getting the calls when folks cannot get through to file unemployment – pleading for help in getting their applications processed so they can get food on the table for the families.
In addition to the departments being unresponsive, the Governor has taken broad administrative action beyond the stay at home order that will have serious consequences for businesses throughout Illinois. I believe many of these actions should have come from the legislature, which is a co-equal branch of government. There has been no attempt to work with the legislature on the upcoming, life-changing decisions that will need full collaboration by the representatives of Illinois working together.
The economic damage that this has caused is no longer abstract and the fallout goes far beyond the Dow Jones. An example of the economic destruction in my district is the couple who have worked tirelessly, scrimped and saved for 40 years of their lives to build a successful business. These business owners have sacrificed family time and memories to pursue a dream, and now they need all of us working together to do everything we can to help keep their dream alive. The implications and collateral damage from these executive orders are real. The lack of empathy from the Governor only worsens the feelings of resentment from people in downstate communities.
When this crisis began, the Governor and his team encouraged all of us to get outside and enjoy exercise to stay healthy in a responsible manner. Then, the Governor took the extraordinary step of shutting down state parks in some of the most remote areas of Illinois. Downstate residents who plan all year long for spring fishing trips, hiking adventures, or runs on the mountain bike trails are finding it difficult to understand how spending all day secluded in the woods or on a boat by themselves on a lake are risky to anyone’s health. It seems like this type of outdoor recreation, far away from others, is exactly the type of behavior that should be encouraged as we get through this difficult time. The only risk to health would be mental health – and that is something we truly have to think of when it comes to the effects of the executive orders.
Lastly, Governor Pritzker has a beautiful home in Springfield – the home of the people. He should not forget during his Stay-At-Home order where his home is now that he is the Governor of Illinois… and it’s about time he consider spending more time outside of Chicago during this time.
Bill Deferment Programs Available to Illinoisans
COVID-19, and the ensuing lockdown, has created a crisis in Illinois. This economic hardship caused by this virus is impacting employees and employers hard. The Illinois Dept. of Employment Security is being inundated with claims, and residents are finding themselves without access to their unemployment benefits. Even those receiving benefits are finding out that those benefits are not enough to meet their basic needs and pay their monthly bills. These individuals are going to be making tough financial decisions.
Companies across the United States and Illinois are voluntarily or mandatorily offering bill deferment programs, and below is a compiled list of companies that are doing so. No one should be embarrassed to be facing economic challenges – especially during these unprecedented times. The last thing any of us want to do is to admit that we are in trouble or vulnerable, but these businesses are understanding of the economic realities and want to work with residents during this time.
If you are facing a tough economic decision, please know that you are not the only one, and there are programs out there to help. Below is a list of some of the programs available:
The IL Commerce Commission (ICC) ordered that each Illinois gas, electric distribution, water, and sewer utility shall design and implement on a temporary basis more flexible credit and collections procedures and file them for consideration and approval to ensure that customers remain connected to essential utility services when the emergency status ends.
Ameren will continue normal billing for power usage, but to help, they are forgiving late payment fees for both residential and business customers. All disconnections have been temporarily suspended until further notice. For more information, click here.
Given the importance of personal hygiene in preventing the spread of coronavirus, American Water has suspended billing related service shut offs. Additionally, they are turning water service back on for customers who were previously shut-off for non-payment. For more info click here.
Local Water Utilities
If you feel you may be unable to pay your water bill or any other utility, contact your local provider or your municipality to defer your payment. It is important to contact your utility provider and work with them.
People’s gas is not disconnecting customer’s service for non-payment. Click the following links to get help with payment arrangements for home or business. They are also working to connect customers with organizations that can help provide payment assistance.
Nicor is voluntarily suspending service disconnections and waiving late payment charges until at least May 1. In the meantime, they are reminding customers to visit nicorgas.com to learn more about financial assistance or payment programs available. Visit Nicor’s billing page for more info.
LIHEAP is one resource that can be used by customers facing a hardship. LIHEAP funds do not need to be paid back.
In order to help with propane bills, the LIHEAP application period has been extended until June 30,2020, or until funding is exhausted. Residents can contact their local propane tank provider if they are unable to pay their current bill to work out a potential payment plan.
Cell Phone Carriers
The four biggest carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—have all committed to not cutting off customers who can’t pay their bill because of this crisis and waiving late fees. They have also implemented a number of policies that help customers stay connected to loved ones, work, and school. Residents having trouble paying their bill should contact them to get their payment deferred:
Internet Providers are offering free access to WiFi hot spots for everyone, including non-subscribers, for 60 days. They are also providing more data to customers for no extra charge and are not disconnecting internet service or charging late fees for customers who say they cannot pay their bills. Please contact your provider if you need more assistance:
Home Mortgage Forbearance
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided the option of mortgage forbearance to homeowners with federally backed mortgages. Homeowners can request a forbearance period of six months, and they have the option to extend it another six months. The program is NOT automatic, and the onus is on the borrowers to ask be placed in forbearance. Each lender has implemented a slightly different program. For more information, borrowers should contact their lender
For federal student loans, payments will automatically stop from March 13, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2020. No new payment will be due until after September 30. Federal student loan borrowers are automatically being placed in an administrative forbearance, which temporarily stops monthly loan payments. This suspension of payments will last until Sept. 30, 2020, but borrowers can still make payments if they choose. Interest on student loans is also not accruing during that time. For more information about Student Loans click here.