A day away from the state employee vaccine deadline, thousands of Illinois workers remain unvaccinated or have not reported their status

Gov. JB Pritzker made a deal Monday with some 7,000 state employees, but correctional workers in the state’s largest public worker union aren’t in it.

Vaccine shot sign
A COVID-19 vacation appointments sign points the way at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Gov. JB Pritzker has made deals with 10,000 state employees, who face a deadline of Oct. 26 to get their first vaccine shot. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
Vaccine shot sign
A COVID-19 vacation appointments sign points the way at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. Gov. JB Pritzker has made deals with 10,000 state employees, who face a deadline of Oct. 26 to get their first vaccine shot. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

A day away from the state employee vaccine deadline, thousands of Illinois workers remain unvaccinated or have not reported their status

Gov. JB Pritzker made a deal Monday with some 7,000 state employees, but correctional workers in the state’s largest public worker union aren’t in it.

On the eve of his deadline, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration has reached an agreement on his COVID-19 vaccine mandate with the union that represents more than 7,000 Veterans Affairs and Human Services employees.

Pritzker had given state employees who work in congregate settings such as nursing homes and prisons until Tuesday to get the first dose of the vaccine or risk facing discipline — including losing their job.

With Monday’s announcement, nearly 10,000 state employees are now covered under a union agreement regarding the vaccines.

“Each person that gets vaccinated is protecting themselves, the people around them and our state as a whole,” Pritzker said in a statement Monday. “We will continue to work through the established legal process to ensure all state employees who work with the vulnerable and incarcerated are vaccinated.”

But there remains no deal for more than 12,000 workers in some units of AFSCME, the state’s largest public employee union, thousands of whom remain unvaccinated or haven’t reported their status, according to state data.

Talks over Pritzker’s mandate have reached an impasse with about 10,300 unionized correctional workers, who are taking negotiations to arbitration. The vaccine mandate cannot be implemented while arbitration is pending, their union said in a statement.

Another 1,900 non-security employees of the Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice are also at an impasse, according to the Pritzker administration. Regardless, the governor is still imposing his mandate on those employees, stating they must receive their first dose by Tuesday.

An AFSCME spokesman said those employees do not agree with the governor’s position that the parties are at an impasse and they are taking the issue to the state’s Labor Relations Board.

“AFSCME is continuing our efforts to share authoritative information with union members about the benefits of getting vaccinated,” spokesman Anders Lindall said in a statement. “Safe and effective vaccines are the best way to protect ourselves, our families, our coworkers and communities, to defeat the pandemic and return to normal.”

Just 46% of the state’s correctional workers report being vaccinated, according to data from the state. Of the 1,144 state employees at Illinois’ largest prison, Stateville located in southwest suburban Crest Hill, Ill., 50% of the workforce have reported receiving their vaccine.

Crossroads, an adult transition center in Chicago with 82 employees by far has the most workers reported being vaccinated, with 94% having received their shot. The scene is vastly different at another adult transition center in Peoria, however, where just 13% of the facility’s 119 employees say they’ve been vaccinated.

Their counterparts who work in the state’s juvenile justice system report much stronger vaccination rates, with two-thirds of juvenile justice employees being vaccinated.

And more than 80% of the state’s Veterans’ Affairs workers have reported getting at least one dose of the vaccine, according to state data.

Nearly 57% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the progress toward getting more of the state workforce vaccinated came as legislation surfaced to tighten a decades-old state law so that it can’t be used to evade state and local vaccination mandates.

The measure sponsored by state Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, would amend the state Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which offers liability protections for medical practitioners unwilling to perform abortions or offer contraception on moral grounds.

The law has been cited increasingly by educators and police officers trying to defend against potential job losses over their philosophical objections to being forced to be vaccinated for COVID-19 by their government employers.

Gabel’s amendment would explicitly note that the law does not offer protections for those wanting to invoke it to sidestep mandated COVID-19 vaccinations and empower governments to terminate workers who don’t comply with vaccination orders.

Despite Pritzker’s backing, its prospects this week are hazy, and Gabel did not immediately respond to WBEZ for comment.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, stopped short of predicting passage Monday but said he “supports getting it done” and is “ready to listen and compromise.”

The original state law the governor wants to amend dates back to the first legislative push to codify the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling that legalized abortions.

The initial law protected health care providers and hospitals from liability if they refused to perform abortions on moral grounds and bore similarities to other laws being enacted in statehouses across the country and in Congress after the landmark court opinion.

The Illinois law was amended four years later to extend those liability protections to medical practitioners who objected to providing contraception or family planning guidance as a right of conscience.

At no time during debates of either measure did state lawmakers say that the legislation had anything to do with vaccination mandates or public health emergencies caused by pandemics, state legislative transcripts show.

Religious and police groups have lined up against toughening the law.

“We are aware that there are individuals citing the act as legal justification for not being vaccinated for Covid-19, and some are relying on the act to object to testing. Although these conscience objections by employees can cause difficulty for health care institutions, this difficulty does not justify amending the law. There is a better way forward,” the Catholic Conference said in a statement last week.

And late Sunday, the state Illinois Fraternal Order of Police lodge expressed its opposition to changing the law.

“The U.S. Constitution guarantees that the government cannot impose the beliefs of one segment of the population onto another, no matter how well-intentioned the government claims its actions to be,” Lodge President Chris Southwood said.

“We are confident that any attempt to usurp these religious freedom rights will be found unconstitutional by the courts. And we fully intend to make every Illinois legislator’s constituents aware of how they voted on this basic right we all have as Americans,” he said.

A headline on the story has been corrected to clarify that correctional workers are included in the state’s largest public worker union but are not included in the mandate deal.

Tony Arnold and Dave McKinney cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @tonyjarnold and @davemckinney.