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Strike taking a toll on family finances, workers say — and things are about to get worse

Even though they are dipping into savings or looking for 2nd jobs, teachers and staff said they still strongly support the goals of the walkout.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 march Wednesday on Dearborn Street in the Loop to a rally at City Hall.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 march Wednesday on Dearborn Street in the Loop to a rally at City Hall.
Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

As the days without pay add up for striking teachers, security guards and other school workers, many say they are starting to feel the pinch in their pocketbooks.

The walkout that has seen school canceled for six days has already lasted longer than many expected, and with both the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot seemingly digging in to their positions Wednesday, it could go even longer — and take a bigger toll on their finances than planned.

What’s more, Chicago Public Schools could stop contributing to teachers’ health insurance premiums as early as next week when the month ends.

And contrary to what some believe, neither CTU nor SEIU Local 73, which represents striking support staff, has a strike fund to cover lost wages. Officials with both unions, though, said Wednesday they are now looking into whether such funds could be set up in short order to provide relief to workers.

While workers interviewed at Wednesday’s rally outside City Hall were resolute that they planned to stick it out until their unions’ contract demands of better working conditions, improved schools and more pay were met to their satisfaction, they acknowledged the hardship they faced, particularly going into next week.

Getting rough

“It’s going to get a little rough,” said Juan Alvarez, a security guard at Healy Elementary in Bridgeport. He’s already been working on the side as the strike continues into its second week.

“After these rallies I go out looking for work,” said Alvarez.

He’s been applying to temp firms, but has been mostly working as a bar-back. He’s used to it: since he’s not paid over the summer, he usually has to get a summer job. And he hasn’t gotten a raise from CPS in three years.

Kathryn Person, who teaches economics and geography at Walter Payton College Prep, said it’s workers like Alvarez whom she is most worried about.

“I need the most vulnerable workers in my building to have a living wage,” Person said.

She is not as concerned about her family’s finances — yet.

“With a two-teacher household and both of us off for a week, that’s a big hit,” Person said. “But I’m going to start to get worried about money at the end of this week.”

Andy Currie (left) with wife Kathryn Person and their son, Lars, at the union rally downtown Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019.
Andy Currie, left, with wife, Kathryn Person, and their son, Lars on Wednesday at the union rally.
Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Like the Persons, other married couples who work for CPS face a double-whammy.

Both Anna Davis, a special ed classroom assistant, and her husband, Jay Davis, a security guard, are on strike. Both squirreled away as much as they could from their last payday before the walkout began last Thursday.

“We’re saving all of our pennies right now,” said Anna Davis, who works at Chopin Elementary in Humboldt Park. Despite 27 years with the district, “we’re still living paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

Anna Davis (right) sits with her husband, Jay Davis, in Daley Plaza during a union rally Wednesday at City Hall.
Anna Davis (right) sits with her husband, Jay Davis, in Daley Plaza during a union rally Wednesday at City Hall.
Matthew Hendrickson/Sun-Times

Other expenses have increased for workers with kids at CPS schools, which is not uncommon since workers are required to live in the district. Some are paying for child care or to send kids to private day camps during the walkout. Jennifer Acuna, a parent of two CPS students, said their food bill has gone up.

“With the kids home all day, we’re going through groceries even faster,” said Acuna, a special education classroom assistant at Thomas Early Childhood Center in McKinley Park.

Workers said they might have to soon take more drastic actions.

Luke Staszak, a history teacher at Westinghouse College Prep High School on the West Side, said he’s going to look into the possibility of deferring mortgage payments under a special clause for striking workers. He might also tap relatives if necessary.

“If it really came down to it, I’m sure I have family who’d help us, but I hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said.

Another problem looms: health insurance. While workers are covered by their current plans through the end of the month, that’s not the case if the strike drags on into next month.

“If it goes into November, CPS health insurance won’t cover us, and we’d have to go on COBRA,” Staszak said. That will make it even tougher for many to make ends meet.

Linda Becker, left, and Luke Staszak attended the union rally Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, outside City Hall.
Linda Becker, left, and Luke Staszak attended the union rally Wednesday outside City Hall.
Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Linda Becker, another history teacher at Westinghouse, said the union sent out an email Wednesday explaining how to defer student loans while on strike.

“Which I didn’t take as a good sign,” Becker said.

With a 9-year-old daughter at CPS and her husband currently in school himself, the family is already on a “tight budget” relying on her salary, she said.

“It’s caused a lot of anxiety for me,” she said. ”I don’t think any of us thought we’d still be on strike this long, so new contingency plans need to be made” — like getting a summer job, she said.

Remaining resolute

Nevertheless, workers said their fight — particularly to help those making the lowest salaries and to improve schools in the poorest neighborhoods — was worth it.

”This is a long-term issue and if we have to deal with short-term problems, we’re ready for that,” Staszak said.

Said Acuna: “We’ll be in it for as long as we have to be.”