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Aldermen protect workers from retaliation for COVID-related absences, ease up on businesses

The amendment approved Monday would postpone until Jan. 1 the section that lets workers sue when schedules are changed without adequate notice or compensation.

Rosa Escareno, commissioner, Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection
Rosa Escareno, commissioner of the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection
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With 32 complaints already pending, Chicago aldermen moved Monday to protect employees from retaliation for absences tied to the coronavirus and threw a bone to struggling businesses.

The City Council unanimously approved a fair workweek ordinance last summer that requires large Chicago employers to give employees at least two weeks’ notice of their schedules and compensate them for last-minute changes.

At a virtual meeting Monday, the City’s Council Committee on Workforce Development agreed to ease up a bit to recognize many businesses may not survive the stay-at-home shutdown of the Chicago economy.

The amendment approved Monday after a rare direct introduction by Mayor Lori Lightfoot would postpone until Jan. 1 the “private cause of action” section that allows aggrieved workers whose schedules are changed without adequate notice or compensation to file their own lawsuits.

“We understand that all businesses are struggling due to the COVID outbreak. This will allow businesses to implement fair workweek policy without fear of lawsuits during the first six months of the regulations,” said Rosa Escareno, Business Affairs and Consumer Protection commissioner.

Escareno stressed the predictable scheduling ordinance will still take effect July 1. “During this pandemic, worker protections are more important than ever before. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of essential workers that have kept the city running,” Escareno said. “Now is not the time to sacrifice the hard-earned [protections] we have already put in place to support our workers.”

Zoning Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (44th), owner of Ann Sather’s Restaurants, acknowledged the ordinance applies only to businesses with 100 or more employees, restaurants with at least 30 locations and 250 employees globally, and to franchisees with four or more locations.

But Tunney warned of the dangers of imposing the mandate as the Chicago economy slowly reopens under the five-step plans unveiled by the mayor and the governor.

“Our biggest challenge is going to be having a two-week forecast of what demand will be like under what phase. That’s gonna be a very complicated phase-in of employees,” Tunney said.

“It’s just one more disincentive to bring people back. I’m being honest with you. As you phase in, you’re only gonna bring your top, top employees. The least amount that you need to run the business. This, among other things, is going to be a real drag on employment for all workers.”

The anti-retaliation ordinance championed by the mayor and approved by the Workforce Development Committee is tailored to protect workers from being fired, suspended, transferred or having their pay cut because of absences tied to the coronavirus.

The protections would apply to workers who stay home because they have COVID-19 symptoms, have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus, or their business is deemed nonessential by statewide stay-at-home order.

“We wish this ordinance was not necessary. And the fact is that the vast majority of our businesses in Chicago have proven themselves to be good actors and have already offered this protection to their workers. But all Chicago workers should be guaranteed job safety as they do their part to keep our community safe,” Escareno said.

“This is more important than ever to ensure that proper protections are in place for our most vulnerable workers — especially as they get ready to begin the road to recovery. Worker rights need to be at the forefront of our plan to protect Chicago in our plan to reopen sooner, rather than later.”

Andy Fox, director of the city’s new Office of Labor Standards, said the city has received 32 complaints of retaliation against workers who stayed home during the pandemic.

The anti-retaliation ordinance would also apply to camp counselors and domestic workers. And employers would have 30-days to “cure” the violation before penalties are imposed.

Ald. Mike Rodriguez (22nd) said he’s concerned documentation required to justify COVID-19-related absences may be “unachievable” for undocumented workers and those in low-wage jobs.

Fox assured the alderman the ordinance allows for “self-certification.”

“If the employee was able to produce a written note, a text — some communication that says, ‘I’m home. My doctor told me to be home. I’m quarantining’ — that would be enough for us to find this is a COVID-related instance. And if an employer took adverse action against them, we’d be able to investigate it and initiate an enforcement action,” Fox said.

“It is a slippery slope. We’d like something concrete to tie to it because it could be ripe for abuse if someone simply didn’t want to go to work. We want some communication with a medical provider.”