Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools continue to force clerks, clerk assistants and technology coordinators to choose between their lives and their livelihoods.
CHICAGO, Nov. 1, 2020—A Chicago Teachers Union rank-and-file clerk who contracted COVID-19 from another staffer while working inside of her Chicago Public Schools building has subsequently infected her entire household. The clerk’s husband, asthmatic daughter and an immunocompromised relative have all tested positive, and are now suffering from symptoms of the deadly virus.
Had Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS been acting legally, rather than lawlessly, that clerk would not have been in her building at all. Tomorrow marks exactly one month since an independent arbitrator ruled CPS buildings unsafe, and that school clerks, clerk assistants and technology coordinators should perform all work remotely that could feasibly be performed remotely.
“Unbelievable,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “We’ve seen school closings from CPS, layoffs, scandals and criminal convictions, but this wanton disregard for human life is beyond words.”
Positive cases of the deadly coronavirus have surfaced at nearly 100 CPS buildings since the school year began in September with limited staffing, and prior to any students reporting for classroom instruction. Hundreds of workers have been infected and one worker has died as COVID-19 continues to ravage the city, and positivity rates skyrocket in communities like Ashburn, Gage Park and Chicago Lawn.
Chicago’s current COVID-19 positivity rate is above 9 percent. The seven-day rolling average for new cases is 955 — up 36 percent from the previous week.
“Our members already working in schools, and those who CPS plans to send back for the second quarter, are absolutely terrified,” Sharkey said.
CPS and the mayor now insist that more than 25,000 medically vulnerable students, pre-kindergarten students and educators return to unsafe school buildings in one week, yet the district has no screening process in place to prevent infected employees and members of the community from entering schools if they’re asymptomatic. This makes it virtually inevitable that COVID-19 will spread throughout schools and school communities, bringing more illness and death to already underserved Black and Brown communities.
In a city and school district run by an attorney who claims to understand the law, CPS’ lawless and dangerous posture is unthinkable. The district admitted in arbitration hearings that more than 90 percent of its building ventilation systems cannot mitigate the spread of COVID-19, even as research shows that poorly ventilated, closed spaces are vectors for coronavirus spread.
That prompted the arbitrator’s binding October 2 ruling that those workers who can work remotely, and have done so from March to June, should be allowed to work remotely. Yet the Union has been forced to file additional grievances and seek an injunction against CPS for needlessly dragging out the period of time that workers would be exposed to COVID-19 in unsafe buildings.
This negligence is now resulting in more than 100 positive cases throughout the district, and CPS taking adverse actions such as discipline, pay docking and requiring use of benefit days against employees for exercising their rights.
“Why should Black and Brown women be forced to choose between their lives and their livelihoods?” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said. “Not one clerk or tech coordinator has to be in these buildings, and the only reason they’re there is because of the mayor and CPS having such indifference to the consequences.”
“This pandemic has no regard for human life, and the numbers are clearly trending in the wrong direction, yet these workers continue to be forced to risk their lives,” Davis Gates added. “They deserve better.”
The refusal to bargain and work collaboratively on the part of CPS and the mayor — their posture since schools were closed in March — is not just undermining educators’ remote working conditions, but threatening human lives. All employees have a right to safe working conditions, and if CPS and the mayor can’t come to the bargaining table with a shared commitment to protect the safety and support the needs of students, families and educators as COVID-19 rages, then they’re a failure.
The risks and costs for workers extend to their families and their communities. CTU clerks are anchors of the neighborhoods in which they work — Englewood, Pilsen, Austin, Little Village and others — and the same neighborhoods that the city and CPS have neglected and denied equity for generations. The current COVID-19 surge is only adding to that trauma.
CPS and the mayor need to honor the arbitrator’s ruling, document that needed repairs have been made and allow other repairs to be independently verified for safety.
“This reckless, hardline position the mayor and CPS are taking will continue to needlessly cause harm, and cost people their health and their lives,” Sharkey said.