By: Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
A new law that aims to curb the area's dismal youth unemployment rate gives companies vying for Cook County contracts a leg up if they hire teens.
The ordinance, which the Cook County Board approved last week, gives companies bid credits if a substantial amount of work on a project is performed by youth aged 16 to 19.
Bidders for county contracts get a 0.5 percent credit to apply to a future contract bid if teens perform more than 10 percent of the labor hours on a county project with a value of at least $100,000, and a 0.25 percent credit if teens perform 1 to 10 percent of the labor hours.
So, for example, a company with a $1 million bid on a county project would appear on paper to have a $950,000 bid with the youth credit, helping it undercut the competition. The credit would be used for evaluation purposes only and not affect the actual price of the project. A credit can be used only once to nail the lowest bid, with the intention that companies will continue to employ youth to accrue more credits.
"The purpose is to (offer an incentive to) people as they put together their employment plan," said Commissioner Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, who co-sponsored the legislation with Sean Morrison, R-Palos Park.
Such bid incentives already exist for companies that hire military veterans and people who have been convicted of crimes.
A dramatic decline in employment among young people has led to concerns that a generation is not getting the early work experience that research has shown leads to better jobs and higher wages down the road.
The employment rate among 16- to 19-year-olds in Cook County was 20.4 percent in 2014, down from 27.5 percent in 2005, and nearly 10 percentage points lower than the national average, according to a March report prepared for the county by the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The recession took a particularly hard toll on youth, who had to compete for entry-level positions with older and more experienced workers who lost their jobs, and they have seen little recovery.
In Cook County, the rate of youth who are both out of work and out of school has been particularly startling, especially when broken down by race. More than 12 percent of black 16- to 19-year-olds are neither in school nor working, compared with 8.9 percent of Hispanics and 5.6 percent of whites, according to the Great Cities Institute report. Among 20- to 24-year-olds, nearly 40 percent of blacks are out of school and out of work, compared with nearly 15 percent of Hispanics and 8 percent of whites.
The Cook County bid incentive applies only to 16- to 19-year-olds in order to follow established definitions of youth in state workforce programs, Gainer said. It does not require companies to hire youth from certain income brackets or racial groups.
While construction contractors are often in line for county projects, Gainer said "the sky's the limit" for the types of jobs youth can fill, including custodial and landscaping. She pointed to the board's approval last week of a $100 million construction agreement for renovation of the county hospital system. Because hospital revenues depend on people renewing their Medicare eligibility, young people could be hired to do community outreach.
"Sometimes we assume a job will require a college degree," Gainer said. "Have you asked yourself why? Is it really an issue, or just habit?"
Employers will have to verify workers' age via their birth certificates, track their hours and submit the information to the county with an affidavit, Gainer said.