Reduced paychecks hit school support workers hard after strike: ‘It’s been a struggle’

Friday marks the last check that will be missing pay from the 11-day walkout last month, but workers say the strike was worth it.

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Norma Price (middle), a CPS bus aide, while on strike last month

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Like lots of other Chicagoans, Citlali Soto works two jobs to make ends meet.

Just that fact alone means it takes a lot of hard work for Soto to support her wife and son as the family’s only money earner.

That pressure goes up even more since Soto, a security guard for Chicago Public Schools and member of SEIU Local 73, has seen reduced paychecks after she and 30,000-plus school workers went on strike last month.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Soto said Thursday. “It’s been very, very stressful. Anxiety levels have been up because you’re trying to find ways to feed your family.

“Currently right now in my home, our refrigerator looks bare. It looks like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It has a juice here and there, maybe some bread if you’re lucky. It’s been a struggle.”

Thousands more are in Soto’s boat — especially SEIU 73 members who work as school support staff.

While the 25,000 educators with the Chicago Teachers Union are also seeing smaller paychecks because of the 11-day strike, they’re generally better paid than the 7,500 security guards, bus aides, special education classroom assistants and custodians who are some of the school district’s lowest-paid workers.

All CPS workers are getting paid Friday, the last of the short paychecks from the strike. Friday’s checks will be sans four days of pay, while the one two weeks ago was missing seven days.

For workers who don’t get paid in the summer, that missing pay hurts as it comes just a couple months into the school year.

SEIU 73 tried its best to help its union members, offering free groceries during the strike and opening an application for needs-based help with bills on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The new five-year contract will also help, with security officers like Soto getting raises ranging from 20-32%, special ed assistants receiving pay bumps of up to 40% and bus aides getting 17-27% increases. Support staff will also get back-pay with retroactive raises to July 2018 since SEIU 73 has been without a contract for a year.

But with the back-pay checks not sent out yet and the new pay rates not implemented, money is tight in the meantime.

Norma Price, a CPS bus aide and also an SEIU 73 member, said she’s working to catch up on her bills but probably won’t be able to until January.

“We don’t make a lot of money in the first place, so when we had to go out on strike that hurt us,” Price said.

But that doesn’t mean there are any regrets about the strike.

“We did what we had to do to let them know we mean business,” Price said. “If you’re gonna suffer, at least suffer for something that you know that’s right.”

Price said she “made ends meet” and made her food last, cooking beans and other small items instead of eating “steak and pork chops and all that stuff.” And she’d do it all over again.

“If I had to eat beans and rice for a whole year, I would do it,” Price said. “It was worth it.”

For Soto, although she had a “nervous breakdown” figuring out how to “scrounge to be able to pay all these bills,” she’s proud of the long-term benefits she believes the contract will bring.

“This contract has changed lives,” Soto said. “We don’t see it right now ... but the longevity is better than this one moment.”

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