Lightfoot’s handpicked district leaders ignore arbitrator’s legally binding ruling and threaten jobs of workers who exercise right to work safely by working remotely.
CHICAGO, Oct. 7, 2020—CPS has threatened to discipline workers who exercise their right to work remotely—a right that an arbitrator reaffirmed in a binding ruling last Friday for school clerks, technology coordinators and others forced back into unsafe buildings beginning in late August.
CPS had previously forced the Union to take its safety grievance on behalf of clerks and other workers into arbitration. Since the ruling, CPS continues to stall on bargaining with the Union to implement remedies in unsafe buildings, and on Tuesday night, began to strongarm workers into schools in defiance of the ruling. Members were emailed and told that those who followed the arbitrator’s ruling rather than working in person would be engaged in an “unauthorized” absence and CPS would “proceed accordingly,” setting the stage for discipline that could include termination.
“CPS obviously disagrees with the arbitrator’s decision, but the district is bound by the decision whether it agrees with it or not,” CTU Deputy General Counsel Thad Goodchild said. “It is illegal for CPS to refuse to comply with a binding arbitration decision, and it is illegal for them to retaliate against employees for exercising their rights under that decision.”
“It’s frankly shocking to see this administration adopt intimidation tactics and gaslight employees about rights that were just affirmed by an arbitrator who CPS mutually selected, particularly when it involves completely unnecessary risks to employees’ health and safety,” Goodchild said.
The arbitrator considered thousands of pages of evidence and testimony, finding that CPS violated the health and safety clause of its contract with CTU members by requiring school clerks, school clerk assistants and technology coordinators to work in person during the COVID-19 pandemic—even when their work could be completed remotely.
The ruling made clear that the Board must “permit school clerks, clerk assistants and technology coordinators to perform all work duties remotely that may feasibly be performed remotely,” just as these workers have done since schools closed in mid-March. The binding arbitration instructed CPS to reach an agreement with the Union by October 4 on how to implement the decision—a mandate CPS ignored.
Workers’ concerns have only grown with news Tuesday that another school, Lindblom, has seen a COVID case surface, possibly connected to in-person testing that CPS has mandated in recent weeks over Union objections. The Union has also received reports of positive cases at Mt. Greenwood, Canty, Lane Tech, Morgan Park, Jameison, Belmont-Cragin, Pulaski, Greeley, Clay, Ryder and Funston, the latter school being where the family of beloved veteran teacher Olga Quiroga believes she contracted the virus.
Quiroga died of COVID-19 last Thursday after performing in-person work at her school since late August. She is among at least nine CPS workers who have died of COVID-19, and hundreds more who have been infected as COVID rates in CPS buildings have tripled in recent months—even as those buildings have been virtually empty.
Meanwhile, CPS has illegally refused to share—either with the Union or the public—information about the total number of positive COVID-19 cases involving CPS staff, vendors and charter operations since August 26, or the number of such individuals quarantined after COVID-19 exposure.
“I was a clerk, my mother was a clerk and my daughter is a clerk, and this is a slap in the face to every clerk in CPS,” said CTU Recording Secretary Christel Williams-Hayes. “For three generations, my family has proudly served Chicago Public Schools, and the fact that the mayor is choosing to fight Black and Brown women instead of the virus makes no sense to me.”
Many school clerks are Black and Brown women who head their households and live and work in some of Chicago’s neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19. Boston has halted school reopening because the city’s positivity rate has hit 4 percent—a rate lower than Chicago’s, which now stands at 4.3 percent—even as Mayor Lori Lightfoot has moved to reopen bars and other businesses. COVID rates in Chicago neighborhoods on the South and West sides are even higher, with positivity rates approaching 20 percent in some neighborhoods.
Chicago International Charter Schools, one of CPS’ largest charter operators, has now agreed that students will learn remotely for the second quarter. CPS has yet to announce whether children will attend school in person or remotely next quarter, which begins in early November. That uncertainty lingers as the U.S. Center for Disease Control admitted this week that COVID can be spread by exposure to virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours—infecting people more than six feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.
“CPS is wasting time, risking lives and creating even more chaos by trying to challenge the arbitrator’s ruling, which it knows is legally binding,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “It’s hard to know if they’re just incompetent or simply too stubborn to put science and safety ahead of their contempt for their workers, their students and fundamental rights to health and safety.”
The CTU has vowed to defend workers who exercise their right to work remotely, as COVID-19 rates in South and West side neighborhoods remain in double digits and growing, far higher than the rate at which CPS could safely open schools.
“It’s appalling that CPS is rejecting a legally binding process that it agreed to, when the district should be embracing an opportunity to save lives,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said. “Instead, the mayor and her CPS team continue to delay a safe return to our schools and refuse to listen to educators, parents and communities who know these schools best and face the greatest risks.”