CHICAGO (CBS) — More than 23,000 people filed for unemployment last week in Illinois – a figure down 17 percent from the week before.

But despite the drop in number, we’ve been hearing from business owners who say they can’t find employees to hire. Now, as CBS 2’s Tara Molina reported Thursday, the State of Illinois is making it possible for people to work and still collect unemployment – in an effort designed to prevent more layoffs.

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The program is called WorkShare Illinois, and the state calls it a layoff aversion program. Molina talked to an expert, who said similar programs have worked in other countries – but this really would have been helpful at the start of the pandemic.

The course of the COVID-19 pandemic brought massive layoffs and an overwhelmed unemployment system. Now, the state is recovering from the pandemic and employees are encountering difficulty in getting people back to work.

“The unemployment checks and the stimulus checks are keeping people at home,” Steven Hartenstein of Stefani Restaurants said in April.

“We can’t get enough labor to satisfy doing enough jobs to bring in enough income to cover the expenses,” Bobby Braun of Braun Events said this month.

“Forty-eight percent of our business owners are saying they have positions they cannot fill,” said Mark Grant, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Now, a possible solution has emerged in WorkShare Illinois.

“It’s been in the works for a while,” said Grant, who is also on the Illinois Department of Employment Security’s Advisory Board.

The brand-new, voluntary program allows Illinois businesses to reduce a worker’s hours by 20 percent to 60 percent, but keep them on staff. That worker can then receive a corresponding percentage of unemployment benefits for a temporary period.

“It’s a way for businesses who have a downturn to be able to keep employees on without massive layoffs,” Grant said.

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Susan Lambert said the same model has worked in Europe.

“In other countries, it really helped,” she said.

A professor at the University of Chicago, Lambert’s research focuses on employer practices. She said it really would have helped at the start of the pandemic.

“How that’s going to benefit employers and employees at this point? It’s unclear,” she said. “But having that in place when there is another economic downturn – and hopefully it won’t be soon, but it always happens – and these are very solid steps for public policy.”

An IDES spokesperson explained WorkShare in a statement:

“WorkShare IL is a layoff aversion program for employers and businesses. This tool is available to employers who experience a lag in business and face downturns in the demand for products and services. WorkShare IL can benefit employers of any size in any industry who enroll in the program to avoid full layoffs and the loss of experienced and skilled staff.

“IDES encourages employers and businesses interested in in WorkShare IL to visit the website for more information about the program.”

Eligibility requirements for workers are the same as the state’s requirements for those regular benefits.

There are similar programs in place in states across the country.

The state spokesperson said the program is still too new to provide details on how many are enrolling right now, or what impact this will have in the coming months, as the state and city recovers.

CBS 2 is committing to Working For Chicago, connecting you every day with the information you or a loved one might need about the jobs market, and helping you remove roadblocks to getting back to work.

We’ll keep uncovering information every day to help this community get back to work, until the job crisis passes. CBS 2 has several helpful items right here on our website, including a look at specific companies that are hiring, and information from the state about the best way to get through to file for unemployment benefits in the meantime.

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Tara Molina