A City Colleges Of Chicago Employee Has Died Of COVID-19. Staffers Say Conditions Are Unsafe.

Union leaders paint a chaotic picture of safety protocols across the colleges, while leaders say they’re following public health guidance.

Wright College
A clerical worker at Wright College, which is part of the City Colleges of Chicago, has died after contracting COVID-19. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
Wright College
A clerical worker at Wright College, which is part of the City Colleges of Chicago, has died after contracting COVID-19. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

A City Colleges Of Chicago Employee Has Died Of COVID-19. Staffers Say Conditions Are Unsafe.

Union leaders paint a chaotic picture of safety protocols across the colleges, while leaders say they’re following public health guidance.

Employees at Wright College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, are mourning the death of a campus clerical worker, Carmelita Cristobal, who died of complications from COVID-19 on March 30.

Employees remembered Cristobal as a beautiful person. “If you needed help, she helped you,” said Audrey Butler, executive vice president of the clerical workers.

Butler worked with Cristobal, who was 71, for years. She said Cristobal’s husband had contracted the virus as well.

Staffers are accusing City Colleges’ leadership of failing to do enough to ensure employee safety. At least nine cases have been confirmed at multiple campuses so far. Union leaders representing faculty and staff painted a chaotic picture of safety protocols across the seven colleges during a virtual press conference Thursday.

“There is no definitive communication from City Colleges that they take this seriously,” said Delores Withers, president of the clerical workers union, Local 1708. “They’re just vague responses. They can’t tell us a list of people who are going in and out. They can’t tell us what equipment they are providing for our employees.”

Union leaders also say City Colleges will not provide a list of essential workers to leaders and has not developed a long-term safety plan for essential workers who are continuing to go into the office, which includes information technology personnel and security officers, among others. They also say there is no consistent personal protective equipment across the colleges.

“Our PPE is all over the place,” Withers said. “At some places you might get the luxury of disinfectant wipes. In another college you might have the luxury of having rubber latex gloves.” She said staff have reported they are not provided masks.

According to union leaders, Cristobal reported for work at Wright’s Far North Side campus on March 16 and came into contact with other employees. Two weeks later, staff were alerted during a weekly Zoom call that she was in the hospital for bronchitis.

“They didn’t reach out to these employees and notify them so they could make a decision as to whether they wanted to stay home or quarantine or whatever,” Butler said. It’s not clear when Cristobal was diagnosed with COVID-19.

City Colleges confirmed Cristobal died via email on Wednesday, but did not mention she died of COVID-19. It confirmed to WBEZ that an employee who had COVID-19 passed away but did not share the employee’s name due to privacy concerns. WBEZ confirmed Cristobal died of complications from COVID-19 with the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

City Colleges officials denied they are putting other employees at risk.

“Please rest assured that from the outset of COVID-19, City Colleges has followed the direction and guidance of the Chicago Department of Public Health on all COVID-19 matters and has sought specific counsel, feedback and approval from CDPH on all COVID related actions and communications and will continue to do so throughout this pandemic,” spokesperson Katheryn Hayes said in a statement.

Hayes said CCC staff have been cleaning and disinfecting all facilities in accordance with those recommendations throughout this time period, including areas where essential staff are working. She also said all janitors are provided with gloves, and there are hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the college.

In a letter to staff on Tuesday, City Colleges leadership said they would no longer alert the CCC community if a member is diagnosed with COVID-19 since it’s been two weeks since facilities were closed.

“The fact that they haven’t been able to tell us the actual steps they took to make people safe on the day of March 16 when they knew there was a concern and an issue gives us pause,” said Tony Johnston, president of the CCC faculty union. “We’ve got members going into CCC every day and will continue to do that, and we need to give them assurances that they’ll be safe.”

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.