Faculty and staff at City Colleges of Chicago are threatening to strike after accusing the administration of failing to ensure a safe work environment for employees required to return in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leaders of the unions representing faculty, clerical staff and adult educators allege the reopening plans at each of the seven colleges in the community college system are insufficient and have not been implemented well.
Staff from multiple colleges said at a press conference Thursday that since the schools reopened Monday there hasn’t been routine sanitization, little to no mask enforcement or proper social distancing guidelines. On Tuesday, staff were also alerted a security officer at Olive Harvey College on the Far South Side tested positive for COVID-19. He was last on campus on July 29.
“Our ventilation isn’t the best; garbage isn’t being picked up’ [in] the bathrooms, the running water is coming out yellow. So, even when you go to wash your hands and do what you can do … they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Adriana Alvarez, a clerical assistant at Olive Harvey, who fought back tears as she spoke. “It’s not fair to put everyone’s life at risk … We deserve to be taken care of and all our lives matter.”
On Thursday evening, Chancellor Juan Salgado alerted the Harold Washington College community via email that an employee there tested positive for the virus. The employee was last on campus Aug. 3, the day student support services staff were required to return in-person.
The unions are demanding clerical and student services employees return to remote work as they have done since the beginning of pandemic. They also want the Chicago City Council’s education committee to hold hearings on the community college reopening plans, which City Colleges released last month.
Employees also said new plexiglass barriers are insufficient and not stationary. One union representative said she saw students moving the plexiglass barriers to the side when speaking with staff and people are wearing masks below their chins. Touchless hand sanitizer machines were promised but have not been provided.
“There’s just an overall no accountability, no follow up for measures to assure we are safe,” said Valeria Davis, chair of the working conditions committee for Local 1708. “It’s really sad that we’re not valued.”
City Colleges of Chicago said in a statement that the reopening plans were reviewed by the Chicago Department of Public Health and follow state and federal recommendations. Spokesperson Katheryn Hayes said in-person service requires facial coverings, health self-screening in advance and social distancing. She did not address allegations these requirements were not being enforced.
Legal questions over striking
Faculty have not gone on strike at City Colleges since 2004. Clerical workers held a one-day strike last year over contract negotiations.
While the current faculty contract includes a clause that they will not strike while a contract is in place, Cook County Colleges Teachers Union leaders say their statewide and national affiliates have pledged to support them if they decide to strike over safety concerns.
“While a strike itself would be illegal, if our members decide it’s necessary we will do so,” said CCCTU President Tony Johnston.
Johnston said a survey of their members found 85% said they would support a safety strike and 75% do not trust City Colleges administration to safely reopen campuses.
The union is holding a meeting Friday to discuss next steps, starting with a possible no confidence vote in City Colleges of Chicago administration. It hasn’t scheduled when to take a vote to authorize a strike, but if they do approve a strike, it would begin the first day of classes on Aug. 24.
Challenging adjunct unemployment
The strike threat comes as the union representing City Colleges’ adjunct faculty says the community college system has started challenging unemployment claims made by part-time employers. Union leaders say 13 adjuncts have received letters from the Illinois Department of Employment Security alerting them that City Colleges is arguing these part-time faculty members are on a “customary break between school terms” and ineligible for unemployment. If IDES agrees, adjuncts could be forced to pay back whatever benefits they’ve received.
Union leaders disagree with City Colleges’ challenge, arguing adjunct faculty do not have any guarantee they will be teaching classes this fall. School policy says adjuncts can be bumped from teaching courses up until the day the term begins, which happened to some adjuncts this summer. At a press conference Thursday, adjuncts said many of their fall classes have just a few students enrolled. Some have zero.
“To say we are on a customary break is extremely surprising,” said Randall Miller, president of the adjunct union. “I don’t think any of us would agree what’s happened in the last three to four months is customary or normal. City Colleges adjuncts have no other place for relief at this time other than to turn to unemployment.”
Adjuncts make up 65% of professors at City Colleges, according to union leaders. They do not receive health insurance and the maximum salary an adjunct with a master’s degree can earn annually is $21,528, but most make half of that.
Union president Randall Miller said they asked City Colleges not to challenge these claims, but leaders refused. Some other colleges in the Chicago area have elected not to challenge adjunct unemployment claims during the pandemic, including Elgin Community College, College of DuPage and Harper College.
IDES could disagree with City Colleges’ challenge, but union leaders say the colleges are creating unnecessary stress during an extremely uncertain time. City Colleges did not immediately return a request for comment