Illinois' unemployment rate dropped in December, the fourth straight month of declines, the state Department of Employment Security said Friday.
State officials said that, in spite of a reduction in the number of jobs in the state last month, the employment picture is improving. But experts outside state government aren't so sure.
Illinois lost 3,200 non-farm jobs, which state officials blamed on bitterly cold weather.
Illinoisans on Capitol Hill are pushing to restore extended federal unemployment benefits.
About 83,000 Illinoisans were among the more than one million Americans who lost their unemployment check last month when Congress did not renew a federal program providing extended benefits.
But they pointed out that the number of people in the state's workforce was up by 62,200, or 1.1 percent, over a year earlier and that some key areas such as manufacturing saw significant gains in December.
Yet, that number losing benefits here could soon jump to almost a quarter million.
"Ultimately this year it will be 230,000 if something isn't done. We're working on it and I hope we can find an agreement, bipartisan agreement," Senator Dick Durbin said.
Senator Mark Kirk commented on the issue, saying, "What it would take is finding a way to not make the deficit go up to extend benefits. I think if we can find a way to reduce spending in other places, we should do this to help people.
Such an agreement has so far been elusive.
Among those deeply involved in the negotiations are senators from Indiana, where unemployment is hovering around 7 percent and Wisconsin, where it dropped to 6.2 percent last month.
The numbers underscore the crisis in Illinois.
In December, 2012, unemployment here was 8.6 percent, with the U.S. average 7.9 percent. In December, 2013, Illinois's rate was again 8.6 percent, while the U.S. rate had fallen to 6.7 percent.
When announcing the monthly jobs numbers, the Illinois Department of Employment Security now always includes the observation that the state's unemployment rate has been above the national average for many years.
The agency offers no explanation for why that might be, drawing this objection from the leader of State Senate Republicans.
"Well, I really think that's outrageous. It's telling the people of Illinois you have to settle for a lower bar, that we can't be as good as the other states around us. That is just non sense," Senator Christine Radogno said.
Economists who watch Illinois remain concerned about its prospects.
"Things have not gone well for Illinois the last six months compared to the nation or compared to several states in our neighborhood," University of Illinois economist Richard Dye said during a presentation earlier this week on the state's jobs situation.
Experts aren't convinced that the picture will improve in the short term.
A forecast of the 2014 job creation prospects for each of the 50 states released earlier this month by the Pew Charitable Trusts projected Illinois will be 50th with an expected job-market growth rate of .98 percent. That would amount to just short of 57,000 net new jobs added this year.
The No. 1 state in Pew's projections was North Dakota, at 3.57 percent. Among Illinois' neighbors, Indiana's projected rate was 1.6 percent, Iowa's at 1.39 percent, Wisconsin at 1.49 percent and Missouri at 1.33 percent.
Friday's report showed Illinois lost a net 4,500 construction jobs in December, the biggest loss of any single job category.
Other areas with declines included a loss of 2,000 educational and health services positions, 1,200 leisure and hospitality jobs, and 1,100 government workers. Most of the last group was school workers off the job for the holidays, Rivara said.
Manufacturing employers added 1,500 jobs after cutting positions in recent months with declining demand for mainstay Illinois products such as heavy mining and construction equipment.
FOX 32 contributed to this report.