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County workers push for ‘pandemic pay’ as coronavirus cases soar

With their current contract set to expire at the end of next month, a spokesman for SEIU Local 73 claimed county officials have refused to bargain over the union’s demand for hazard pay.

Member of SEIU Local 73 rally at Stroger Hospital to demand hazard pay as COVID-19 cases increase in the Chicago area, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Dozens of Cook County workers rallied outside Stroger Hospital on Wednesday to demand hazard pay and other protections as the state grapples with a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

With their current contract set to expire at the end of next month, a spokesman for SEIU Local 73 claimed Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle has refused to bargain over the union’s demand to increase workers’ pay during the pandemic.

“They’re willing to walk away from the table over this,” said Eric Bailey. “You’ve seen what’s happening with the pandemic in the last couple days just here in Cook County. The numbers are skyrocketing [and] people are dying.”

The protest came just hours after state public health officials announced 6,363 new coronavirus cases, shattering the previous single-day record and setting a new grim milestone. Officials also attributed 56 more deaths to the virus.

A spokesperson for Preckwinkle didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

For some frontline workers, the county’s unwillingness to negotiate over the key sticking point serves as a slap in the face. Joyce Klein, a social worker at Stroger, said offering hazard pay is merely “the first line to show respect to your workers.”

“The hospital spent a lot of time preaching about how there’s heroes here, and they put signs up calling everyone heroes. But then they refuse to treat them like heroes,” Klein added.

James “Big Jim” Phipps, a longtime civil rights crusader who works in the Cook County clerk’s office, offered a message of hope while addressing the crowd of protesters, which included SEIU President Dian Palmer.

“The system will not overcome us. We will overcome and we will be victorious in what we do,” said Phipps. “It’s time to fight — fight for our rights. It’s time to be respected, protected and paid.”