CPS admits COVID cases among CPS workers have tripled since May, with hundreds of school workers contracting COVID-19—and at least eight now dead—despite working in lightly populated buildings with very limited staff.  

CHICAGO, September 16, 2020—The Chicago Teachers Union is presenting a second day of evidence and testimony today in an arbitration trial that charges CPS with violating contractual health and safety provisions by forcing clerks and assistant clerks to work in-person under unsafe conditions.

The trial will rule on CTU’s grievance that CPS has violated contract language guaranteeing that “bargaining unit employees shall work under safe and healthful conditions”. The Union contends that CPS’s current requirement that clerks report to school for their full work day—every day of the week, for the entire first academic quarter, despite all instruction being conducted remotely and regardless of whether their work duties could be completed remotely—violates this health and safety guarantee.

The threat to workers is real, even as CPS has been playing hide the ball regarding numbers of COVID-19 cases among school personnel for the last six months. On Tuesday, CPS provided the Union with numbers of COVID-19 cases in school communities, in response to a CTU Freedom of Information request—and the numbers are chilling.

At least 258 CPS staff members, service vendors or charter school staff tested positive for COVID-19 between March and September 9, including both staff working remotely and so-called ‘essential’ employees who CPS has ordered to physically report to work. That number is more than three times higher than the number of COVID cases CPS reported among school workers in early May. According to CPS, 123 of COVID cases among school workers in the last six months have been “actionable”—meaning that they required an operational intervention like a ‘pause in operations’ at the school. CPS also reported eight COVID-related deaths—a number the Union fears may be higher.

CPS has not told the Union which school communities were impacted by COVID-19, nor have they said how many identified school personnel cases were among frontline workers forced back into buildings.

“We know that bringing more people into school buildings while this pandemic continues to rage will contribute to higher numbers of illness and death,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “Yet CPS continues to refuse to bargain on guarantees of safety protocols. At the same time, CPS is forcing workers like school clerks—who are overwhelmingly Black and Brown women who hail from the same West and South Side neighborhoods being pummeled disproportionately by COVID-19—back into their buildings when they could do their work remotely. That’s not just stupid. That’s dangerous—and tragically, has already been deadly for some workers.”

In a parallel legal action, the CTU has filed an unfair labor practice, or ULP, against CPS for forcing clerks and other workers into buildings without bargaining on working conditions. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) heard arguments on the Union’s ULP charge last Wednesday—and strongly indicated that CPS has acted unlawfully, rejecting CPS’s defense that it has no duty to bargain over requiring employees to report for in-person school work. Those findings prompted Acting IELRB Chair Lynne Sered to ask that the IELRB move the CTU’s ULP charge to trial before an administrative law judge on an expedited basis.

The IELRB Executive Director also issued a complaint against CPS two weeks ago over management’s move to direct that school clerks report for in-person work before commencing negotiations with CTU over this decision.

CPS forced school clerks and some other workers prematurely back into buildings beginning on August 26, and is seeking to expand that to clinicians and others—without guaranteeing basic safety protocols that include working ventilation, sneeze guards, or enforced social distancing practices. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s CPS executives have indicated in bargaining that they seek to return all workers back into school buildings as soon as possible, possibly as early as November, even as educators and CPS parents—especially Black and Brown parents—continue to reject poorly designed and inadequately funded back-to-school plans.

According to a new national AFT poll, 68 percent of parents—including 82 percent of Black parents—and 77 percent of teachers say protecting the health of students and staff should be the primary factor in weighing whether, how and when schools should open their doors for in-person instruction.

The Union is also continuing to press CPS in negotiations to agree to adequate safety measures and reasonable working terms for school clerks and other workers—including that work that can be done remotely be allowed to be completed remotely to avoid unnecessary health and safety risks.

The arbitrator is expected to rule quickly once this week’s trial wraps up.

The Chicago Teachers Union represents more than 25,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in Chicago Public Schools, and by extension, the nearly 400,000 students and families they serve. The CTU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is the third-largest teachers local in the United States. For more information please visit the CTU website at www.ctulocal1.org.