Joe Davis delivers drinks to Edina Mesanovic (from left), LeAnn Degner and Kamry, 3, and Melissa Pettigrew (out of frame) on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, at Lucha Cantina in Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — Local restaurants that were struck with a surge in unemployment insurance costs due to layoffs caused by the pandemic have relief on the way.

The Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau on Monday rolled out applications for a $1.5 million pool of grants intended to support restaurants in Winnebago County that saw their unemployment insurance rates skyrocket — in some cases by a factor of seven — because of layoffs made during state-mandated health restrictions.

The state had frozen such increases during lockdowns to protect business owners from paying higher rates due to layoffs caused by the pandemic. However, that freeze ended before restaurants in this area of the state were allowed to fully reopen.

It’s been a long wait for relief for business owners like Emily Hurd of The Norwegian. Staff cutbacks that continued at her restaurant in early 2021 caused her unemployment insurance rate to spike from 1% to the maximum (at the time) of 7.625% in 2022, even though she said she had never made a layoff that wasn’t caused by pandemic.

“I wish there wasn’t a need for this grant in the first place. What really should be happening is that our rates shouldn’t be this high,” Hurd said. “The state of Illinois is creating a grant so that we can pay the state of Illinois, when what should really be happening is that they just stop coming for our money and fix the problem that they created.”

The relief will help, she said, but the solution she and other restaurant owners really wanted was for state lawmakers to correct the issue and revert their rates back to the lower level they would have been without the layoffs. Hurd said it has cost her business at least $70,000, although she did not have an exact figure available.

Emily Hurd works in the kitchen on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2022, at The Norwegian in Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

“No matter what happens, I’m holding my head up. The team, everybody, worked so hard,” Hurd said. “We’re here for another year. I don’t know if we’ll make it this year, but we’re alive through it.”

The restaurant business has been more challenging since the pandemic, with increased food costs and other inflationary factors. The higher unemployment costs exacerbated those issues.

“I see our numbers and I know without this (increased unemployment insurance rate), we would be OK,” Hurd said. “So I just keep waiting for this to go away.”

State Rep. Maurice West worked to get the grant money set aside in the state budget after he said there was no appetite from his colleagues to find another solution. West had initially sought $3 million in relief.

“Rockford and Winnebago County restaurants were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and unfortunately the impact of the pandemic has continued to follow them because they followed the rules. With this grant program, we’re taking meaningful steps to support those who diligently followed closure mandates in 2021, remain operational to this day, and have continued to face increased unemployment insurance rates,” West said in a statement provided to the Rock River Current. “This assistance will help ensure the resilience and vitality of our restaurant industry, a cornerstone of our community’s culture and economy.”

Eligibility requirements

1. The restaurant’s principal place of business is located within the geographical boundaries of Winnebago County, Illinois.
2. The restaurant complied with the indoor dining closure mandates enacted by the state of Illinois during the first quarter of 2021 via executive orders 2021-01, 2021-02, 2021-03, 2021-04, and 2021-05.
3. In complying with indoor dining closure mandates in Q1 of 2021 the restaurant laid off staff and, as a result, has
experienced an increase in state unemployment insurance charges.
4. The restaurant incurred and/or will incur a higher rate of state unemployment benefit charges in 2022, 2023 and
2024, because of the higher unemployment benefit charges in Q1 of 2021.
5. The restaurant remains operational today.

The visitors bureau will administer the grant and oversee its application process and the distribution of funds. The application period is open now until March 28, and the first awards are expected by the end of April. The maximum amount a restaurant can receive is $100,000.

John Groh, CEO of the visitors bureau, said its work administering the grant was a natural extension of its support of the restaurant and hospitality industry.

“Certainly we want to see them grow and survive and thrive and hopefully come out of this as strong as they went in at the start of the pandemic,” Groh said.

Hurd said while they didn’t get the fix they want, she’s grateful to West and Groh for their work securing and administering the grants. Hurd, who first spoke to the Rock River Current about the issue in August 2022, said she held several fundraisers to ensure she could pay the unemployment insurance bills. She also took out another personal loan.

“Any little bit of money helps,” she said. “We’re making money of eggs and bacon and toast.”

Unemployment insurance rates are determined by a multi-factor formula that accounts for total wages and unemployment claims, among a variety of other components. To break it down simply: businesses with more layoffs pay a higher rate.

The Olympic Tavern still pays the maximum rate, now 8.65%, even though it hasn’t made any layoffs outside of the pandemic, according to information General Manager Zak Rotello showed to the Rock River Current. It’s unclear how long it will take before the rate will decline. Rotello expects it will take years.

“We will appreciate anything if we are applicable for it. We very much have been appreciative of any funding we’ve gotten already,” Rotello said. “Moving forward, that’s still not going to save anybody’s business because we have four-plus more years of that rate to look forward to.

“It’s a nice band-aid, but it’s not a fix for the terminal problem.”

How to apply

To learn more about the restaurant relief grant program and access the online application portal, go to

Questions about the program should be directed to

This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at or follow him on X at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas and Threads @thekevinhaas

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