More than eight months after all adults in Illinois became eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, two important, taxpayer-funded government agencies in the Chicago area still are not requiring thousands of public employees to get their shots in order to work.
Officials told WBEZ there is no vaccine mandate for people who work for the chief judge of the Cook County Circuit Court – including staff at the county’s juvenile jail – or the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.
The leaders of those agencies have avoided demanding proof of shots from their employees, even as vaccine mandates were placed into effect in recent months by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and other elected county officials.
In August, Preckwinkle said everyone who reports to her must get vaccinated by Oct. 15. But that did not cover the office of the chief judge, Timothy Evans, who oversees the juvenile jail.
“The Office of the Chief Judge does not have a mandatory vaccination policy, however, we encourage employees to get vaccinations,” Evans’s spokesperson, Mary Wisniewski, told WBEZ. “We have found in a survey of employees that about 90% are vaccinated.”
But Evans’s office did not provide a copy of that survey nor answer questions from WBEZ about the date of the survey and whether the data cited by Wisniewski included employees at the county’s Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. And the chief judge’s office is not subject to the state’s open-records law.
After WBEZ asked about the lack of a mandate, Wisniewski said the chief judge’s office would conduct weekly COVID-19 testing of staff.
As the administrative overseer of the circuit court system, the chief judge’s office has a payroll of about 400 judges and roughly 2,600 other employees, including 574 people who work at the juvenile jail.
As of Dec. 8, Evans’s office said, there have been 138 staff cases of COVID-19 at the juvenile jail and 119 residents who have tested positive.
Juvenile detainees are provided vaccines “once we get permission from their parents,” Wisniewski said.
Two members of the juvenile jail’s advisory board said that’s not enough – and they think Evans should require his employees there to get vaccinated.
“The lack of a vaccine mandate is incredibly problematic,” said Briana Payton, who is a policy analyst at the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
Another member of the jail’s advisory board, Amanda Klonsky, said there is no way to be certain of how many of the facility’s employees are fully vaccinated because there is no requirement that they provide proof of vaccination.
“The fact that there’s no vaccine mandate for those county employees who work there with these most vulnerable youth is an abdication of the court’s responsibility to protect public safety,” said Klonsky, a Chicago-based researcher working for a national data-tracking project on the pandemic in jails at the University of California-Los Angeles law school.
Klonsky added, “I also think it’s important to remember that COVID is by far the biggest threat to the health and safety of people who work in confined settings like jails, prisons and detention centers.”
In contrast to Evans, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart – who oversees the jail where adults are held – required vaccinations of his employees.
But as with the Chicago Police Department’s notoriously bitter legal fight with organized labor over the city’s mandate, enforcement of the vaccination policy at the county jail “has been delayed” pending negotiations with unions representing workers, Dart spokesman Matt Walberg said.
More than 77% of sheriff’s office staff have received their shots, compared to 58% when Dart announced the mandate in September, Walberg said.
And although they also are subject to a vaccine mandate, workers at Illinois Department of Corrections facilities have lagged behind other state employees in getting their shots, and unionized security employees there are in arbitration with the state over the issue.
Preckwinkle’s mandate does not cover workers who answer to other independently elected county officials. But aides to Assessor Fritz Kaegi, Treasurer Maria Pappas and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx all have enacted mandates, too.
A spokesperson for Foxx told WBEZ the office has achieved total compliance among more than 1,250 lawyers and other employees subject to a mandate announced in August, with only a handful of staff qualifying for an exemption from the policy.
Treasurer’s office employees have until Jan. 16 to get fully vaccinated, according to Pappas’s policy.
Potential danger to detained youth
Police and correctional officers were among the first to be eligible for the vaccine in Illinois, early this year, and it is a “very reasonable expectation” for Cook County juvenile jail workers to be vaccinated, said Stephanie Kollman, policy director at the Children and Family Justice Center, part of Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. She cited the potential danger to detained youth.
“Illness and disease is not an acceptable punishment,” she said.
Kollman also called on state lawmakers to pass legislation making administrative functions of the court – such as the juvenile jail – subject to the open-records statutes.
“It’s unfortunate that [the lack of a vaccine mandate at the county juvenile jail] hasn’t been a publicly transparent fact,” Kollman said.
Evans appointed a “blue ribbon committee” to advise on best practices for juvenile detention at the county lock-up in April.
But the chairman of the committee, clinical psychologist Gene Griffin, declined to comment on the lack of a vaccination mandate at the juvenile jail.
“We’re not supposed to be talking on the record to reporters,” Griffin said. “It’s an internal committee. When Judge Evans formed the committee, we agreed to report to him and refer all press back to his office.”
While Evans has placed no vaccine mandate for them, some Cook County judges – who have worked remotely for much of the pandemic – were given the chance to get their shots before they were even eligible.
In March, WBEZ reported that Loretto Hospital provided the chance for then-scarce COVID-19 shots earlier that month to more than a dozen Cook County judges — and to each judge’s spouse or a “second person” of their choosing.
That happened even though the city of Chicago’s rollout of the vaccine and state of Illinois rules made clear being a judge would not make someone eligible for vaccination against the coronavirus until March 29.
Evans’s office defended the offer, but the hospital said it was a mistake. It followed Loretto’s mea culpa after Block Club Chicago reported that the hospital wrongly gave vaccines to workers at the Trump Tower in downtown Chicago, far from the mostly Black and low-income community the provider is supposed to serve on the West Side.
Water agency in its final stages of vaccine negotiations
With more than 1,700 employees, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District does not have a vaccination mandate, but a spokesperson for the agency said officials expect to reach a deal on the matter soon with seven unions representing workers there.
Asked why the agency lagged so far behind the months-old policies implemented by other state and local officials, spokeswoman Allison Fore said: “The District is in the final stages of negotiating the specifics of our proposed vaccination policy with the unions that represent our employees. The District respects the negotiation process and can report policy details upon completion of negotiations.”
Almost 1,000 non-union employees at the district also are not yet required to be vaccinated – and will not face a mandate until a deal is worked out with unions representing 785 other employees, Fore told WBEZ.
Still, she said, “The District has made the protection of employees a priority from the beginning of the pandemic. Vaccinations are encouraged by providing employees with paid time off, and regular communications have been issued reminding employees of this benefit.”
Fore said a survey of district employees in June found 65.3% “of responding staff” were already fully vaccinated.
As of Dec. 7, she said, the district counted 254 COVID-19 cases among employees, with six hospitalized due to the pandemic and no deaths.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.