Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker vetoed a bill Monday that would have required public school districts and colleges to provide paid leave for workers who take days off related to COVID-19. But the plan isn’t dead.
Pritzker came to an agreement with the state’s teachers union and said he intends to advance a compromise replacement bill that focuses on vaccinated staff. Under the governor’s proposal, only fully vaccinated school employees will qualify for paid leave and restoration of sick days.
In a statement, the governor acknowledged workers who are “doing their part” by becoming fully vaccinated.
“They deserve to be able to take the time they need to respond to the ongoing devastating impacts the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have on them and their families,” Pritzker said.
This is the latest example of a public official trying to use whatever levers they can to bump up the state’s vaccination rates. Earlier this fall, the governor mandated vaccinations for all pre-K-12 public school teachers and staff or be subject to regular testing.
Teachers union leaders stood by the governor’s action.
“We applaud Gov. Pritzker for his steady support of science and good public health and thank him for working with us to provide teachers, school staff and higher education professionals with critical resources that will help them keep kids safe and schools open,” said Dan Montgomery, president of Illinois Federation of Teachers.
The replacement bill mirrors the vetoed bill, but now only fully vaccinated workers will qualify. It covers employees in public schools, universities and community colleges, giving them paid leave for COVID-related days off, including quarantining and caring for a child. Sick days already used this year for COVID reasons will be restored. The bill also would guarantee wages to hourly workers who are required to miss work during a school closure or e-learning day because of COVID.
It’s unclear when the replacement bill would be introduced and by what lawmakers. Some legislative session days have already been canceled because of high COVID-19 case rates, leaving lawmakers with a shorter timeframe this session.
Juan “Johnny” Ramos was expecting the governor’s veto, but was relieved to hear a similar bill was coming. Just before the start of the semester, Ramos contracted COVID-19. He took all the steps to stay healthy, getting vaccinated and masking up. But he still had to take two weeks off from his job.
“I have asthma,” Ramos said. “I’m well enough to be in public with my children, but I still have a cough. It’s kind of one of those deals where you just got to pick up the flag and keep moving forward.”
Ramos is the head custodian at Maplebrook Elementary in west suburban Naperville. He said he had to dip into his personal and vacation days to cover the time he was out. As a custodial worker, he says he’s in the school building year round and losing days to COVID hits hard.
“We have exhausted our sick days to the point where now we’re using personal and vacation days in order to get a full check,” he said.
An elementary school teacher in the suburbs said she was days from getting her booster shot when she and her young son got COVID. The teacher wants to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing a job opportunity. She’s pregnant and the sick days she used for quarantine and caring for her son could eat into her paid parental leave.
“I have to decide if I’m going to shorten my FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and come back with a teeny tiny baby at home, or whether or not we’ll just have to take money out of savings and kind of deal with it,” she said.
Now, she’s hopeful she’ll get those sick days restored if the governor’s plan is approved. The previous bill, HB 2778, received a veto-proof majority in Springfield.
Some principals have concerns about the new proposal. Alison Maley is government and public relations director of the Illinois Principals Association.
“We continue to be concerned about the shortage of substitute teachers and staff to accommodate administrative and sick leave and look forward to working with the [Illinois] General Assembly and the governor on addressing short and long-term solutions for this ongoing crisis,” Maley said in a statement.
However, she did recognize the requirement for vaccination is an important step to maintaining in-person learning.
The governor’s proposal is one among several recent moves by lawmakers to get more people vaccinated against COVID-19. And some are facing pushback. The governor’s mandate is facing a legal challenge from a group of Illinois teachers.
The governor’s new proposal for COVID-related paid leave is likely to receive mixed reactions as vaccination rates vary across the state. Chicago Public Schools says 90.5% of all staff are vaccinated. The district originally required all staff to be vaccinated by an October deadline, but added a testing option amid concerns about staffing shortages.