Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously said: “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.”
A labor coalition led by the Chicago Teachers Union is taking that advice to heart when it comes to the crisis caused by the coronavirus.
The unions held a City Hall news conference Wednesday to unleash a kitchen sink of demands that might have been unthinkable before the worldwide pandemic that started in Wuhan, China:
• 15 paid sick days a year, instead of the five mandated for Chicago employers, with the protection extended statewide.
• A citywide meals-on-wheels program, internet access and electronic devices for students forced to stay home because of school closings like Vaughn and Resurrection High Schools.
• Debt forgiveness, suspended mortgage payments, a temporary shutdown of eviction court and a moratorium on utility shut-offs.
• No more penalizing schools by basing funding on school attendance.
• Adequate cleaning supplies — and a nurse in every school sooner than the hard-fought teachers’ contract demands.
Greg Kelley, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, said the issue of supplies extends to the 90,000 home care, child care, nursing home and hospitals workers he represents across the state.
“Our members, in some cases, have been asked to use trash bags instead of gowns. Unacceptable,” Kelley said. SEIU Healthcare Illinois has an ownership stake in the Sun-Times.
Kelley made the case for more sick days by pointing to the 14-day quarantine period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and to the 19 nursing home residents in the state of Washington who died after contracting coronavirus.
“Unless employers commit to providing up to 15 days fully-paid leave, workers will be forced to make the hard choice of whether to go to work sick, like many of them have already been doing, or to lose pay. And, at their rate of pay, they cannot afford to do that,” Kelley said.
So far, Vaughn and Resurrection are the only Chicago Public Schools impacted by coronavirus closures. CTU chief of staff Jennifer Johnson said she’s certain they won’t be the last — which is why the teachers union is demanding that CPS “build an infrastructure” to support what she called “remote learning.”
“This would require taking dramatic steps like providing internet access and devices to students who need to stay home,” Johnson said.
“In-person school, because school is built on relationships, is always best. But we have to have a back-up plan to ensure our students don’t fall behind.”
Johnson also demanded emergency changes to a “school quality rating policy” at CPS that “incentivizes” schools to “keep attendance as high as possible.”
“Now is not the time to ramp up fears of being dinged on an attendance policy. Now is the time to suspend a rating policy that incentivizes attendance in favor of safety. If students are sick, they need to stay home and that needs to be OK. There should be no penalty to any school, student or family for staying home and keeping safe,” she said.
Elizabeth Lalasz, a nurse at Stroger Hospital, spoke for National Nurses United.
She poked holes in the CPS decision to isolate only those students and adults who were “in the building” when a classroom assistant who contracted coronavirus while on a cruise was presumed to be contagious.
That leaves out family members, including working parents, many of them low-wage employees, as well as siblings who attend other Chicago Public Schools.
“The entire family needs to be isolated to protect the community. If these children or their families become ill, they will be asked to return to Vaughn to get the tests, but many don’t have cars. Do we have them take public transportation? Of course not. Public health workers should come to their homes to test them,” she said.
“But if they can’t make rent or feed themselves, how do we expect them to stay home? We’re calling on the city of Chicago to address these issues right now at the last moment before things spiral widely out of control.”
Tanya Triche Dawood, vice-president and general counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said it makes no sense to “legislate for the worst-case scenario because we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
“Cooler heads need to prevail here. When the city passed the paid leave law, we took into account what the worst-case scenario could be. Which is, we could be dealing with a pandemic. The discussion was, we should legislate for what was the most common scenario,” she said.
Dawood argued 15 paid sick days per year would be too big a financial burden for merchants already facing declining sales tied to the coronavirus.
“People are stocking up. Eventually, they won’t be shopping. You’re talking about employers losing money because people aren’t shopping, then having to pay more money out at the same time,” she said.
Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President Jack Lavin said the “health and safety of our employees is the number one issue” for his members. But he refused to comment on the specific demand for 15 paid sick days, though he “understands the concerns.”
“Many of our members are proactively setting policies on this issue. The private markets, private companies are proactively setting policy,” he said.
The mayor’s office refused to comment directly on the demand for 15 paid sick days, saying only that Chicago already has a policy that guarantees paid sick leave and City Hall has “begun reaching out to private employers to encourage they remain flexible on leave policies for workers impacted” by the coronavirus.
Since 2006, most Chicago employers have been required to provide workers with five days of paid sick leave each year.
The ordinance emerged from a task force that included employers. But the business community was not pleased. At the time, both the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce and the merchants association warned it would drive up costs at a time when city was also raising property taxes and minimum wages.