*** Federal paid sick leave and family leave information can be found in the links on the right under COVID-19 resources. ***
Battling Coronavirus -- Updates
There have been new developments almost hour by hour in the ongoing battle to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Our union is fighting on every possible front to protect the health, wellbeing, income and job rights of AFSCME members. While the state of Illinois agreed almost from the outset to our call for expanded rights regarding paid time off, it has been a much greater challenge to develop and enforce appropriate practices regarding 'work from home' and workplace safety measures across the broad array of state agencies with varied missions, working conditions, and types of employees.
As we have said repeatedly, COVID-19 can be prevented, but only if employees know the measures they need to take and only if employers provide the safest possible working conditions. Anyone who is sick should not come to work-and should not lose any income if they stay at home. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19-or is quarantined or isolated as a result of exposure to the virus-should remain in pay status and should not have to use his or her own benefit time. And every state agency should be taking every possible precaution to protect the health of its employees.
We have received additional information on several key fronts and we wanted to share that with you right away.
- Federal Stimulus Bill - For weeks now AFSCME and other labor unions have been working with Senate Democrats in Washington DC to ensure that any stimulus measure passed addresses the needs of working families-and helps to prevent massive layoffs in state and local governments. While we did not achieve all of our goals, we were successful in several respects: There will be direct payments to the overwhelming majority of working families; there will be enhanced Unemployment Insurance benefits which will almost completely replace lost wages; there will be significant (though far from sufficient!) funds for state and local governments. The bill is now awaiting a vote in the House which is expected very shortly.
- SERS - Council 31 learned a few days ago that a memo was being circulated by management in some DOC facilities which seemingly originated with CMS informing employees who were scheduled to retire soon that there would be a lengthy delay in the issuance of their pension checks. The memo stated the following: "Our records indicate that you initiated paperwork to begin your retirement. We have been informed by SERS that they are not processing retirement paperwork at this time. We do not have a timeframe when SERS will begin processing retirements..Please realize that you should not expect to receive a pension check for at least 8-12 weeks after the current situation stabilizes. Any additional reduction in workforce actions taken at a future date may further impact this timing." Council 31 immediately contacted SERS whose director explained that most employees were being allowed to stay at home because of the pandemic and that the priority for those who remained was issuance of checks to current annuitants. After discussion with AFSCME Employee Benefits Director Martha Merrill, SERS agreed to further revamp operations to reduce the delay for employees desiring to retire.
- We know that many of our members who are considered "essential" and must remain on the job are having difficulties with child care as schools and child care centers have all been closed pursuant to the governor's orders. The Pritzker Administration is very aware of this problem and has been working diligently to help establish special child care options for essential employees. They have now set up a hotline that "essential" employees can call to try to find child care in their own communities.
- The Families First Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by the president last week, includes provisions to aid any employee who is having problems with child care as a result of COVID-19 related school closures. This law also provides additional rights for employees who are sick with or have been exposed to COVID-19 The USDOL, which is responsible for issuing the regulations regarding implementation of this law, has issued a preliminary FAQ fact sheet shedding further light on these important provisions.
- Safeguards on the Job - As many of you undoubtedly know there have already been several employees (and others at our state work locations) who have tested positive for COVID-19. Some agencies (or specific facilities or offices) have NOT been doing a good job of keeping the union and employees informed in those instances (or when there is a suspected case). Worse, some agencies have not been sufficiently diligent in providing appropriate personal protective equipment, or even sanitizers. AFSCME staff, along with many of you, are pounding on these failures-and demanding fixes-daily. In some instances, we have taken these problems to the highest levels at CMS and other departments. Improvements are being made-they're just not being made fast enough from where we sit.
- Essential Employees -- As we noted in our previous message to you, the employer has the right to make determinations as to who can and cannot work from home. But certainly we have a right and a duty to argue against those determinations if employees are unnecessarily put at risk. In some instances, state agencies, offices or facilities have not made a good faith effort to identify every possible employee who could work remotely from home or just be at home on call. Unfortunately, the terminology being used to make these determinations is 'essential' and 'non-essential'. We know that many of your members are arguing vigorously that they are 'non-essential' so that they can remain at home even if they are not able to work remotely. We would urge you to try to rephrase the case to one of "deferring" their work assignments rather than focus on their 'non-essential' status. If this crisis continues for months rather than weeks, we could all too likely be confronting a large number of layoffs-and it is all too possible that anyone designated as 'non-essential' would be first targeted in that situation.
We've been getting updates from some of you on the methods you're using to communicate with all your members-and those are just so vital. Just one example: Local 2854 has reactivated its MAT Team and does a check-in call at 7:30 each morning to fill participants in on any new developments.
The Council continues to prioritize member communication as well. Our Facebook page is updated daily (often more than once a day). And by now, hopefully, you have gotten information on the Telephone Town Hall we will hold for all members in state government tomorrow night-please plan to join in!
As we previously informed you, Council 31 has cancelled all scheduled trainings, standing committee meetings, roundtables, lobby days, etc. during March and April. Now hotels and other meeting venues, as well as catering firms, are temporarily closing their doors through May, so the Council is herewith cancelling all scheduled shared location events in May as well. Note especially that the New Activist Training scheduled for May 14-16 is cancelled. We will reschedule as soon as feasible. We are also exploring holding training sessions and other gatherings via conference call, teleconference, or webinar.
The state grievance process is continuing to function, but at a significantly slower pace. Arbitrations had already slowed to a snail's pace because CMS does not have sufficient lawyers on staff. Now the problem has worsened. We are currently working on a plan to hold third level grievance committee meetings via teleconference. In addition, we are working on an MOU with CMS that would extend time limits for imposing discipline and filing/processing grievances. More details will be forthcoming soon.
We will also soon be sending you additional information on our plans to continue to welcome, orient, educate and sign up on membership cards any new employees hired during these unprecedented times.
Again we want to express our deep appreciation for your ongoing efforts to safeguard the health and well-being of all of your members. Be assured that Council staff are doing all that we can to support and sustain you in those efforts.
Roberta Lynch, Executive Director
Mike Newman, Deputy Director
Battling the Coronavirus On All Fronts
There has never been a more perilous moment in our lifetimes-with so many lives at risk and our economic security in jeopardy. Tens of thousands of AFSCME members here in Illinois-and hundreds of thousands more across the country-continue to be on the frontlines everyday providing services that are essential to the health and wellbeing of our fellow citizens. We know that many of you are among them-and that whether you are at the worksite or working from home, all of you are doing all you can to ensure that the proper precautions are in place and protective equipment provided for those members who continue to work in high-risk settings.
Protecting the health and well-being of our members is our union's top priority. COVID-19 can be prevented, but only if employees know the measures they need to take and only if employers provide the safest possible working conditions. Anyone who is sick should not come to work-and should not lose any income if they stay at home. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19-or is quarantined as a result of exposure to the virus-should remain in pay status and should not have to use his or her own benefit time.
Fortunately, the Executive Order that Governor Pritzker issued last week designates labor unions as "essential" (and we know we are!), thereby allowing our union to continue to pursue this mission without pause-as we have been doing since the earliest days of the outbreak.
EMPLOYEE PROTECTIONS AND RIGHTS
Council 31 has been seeking to reach agreements with employers or help shape their policies in order to establish strict standards for employee protections, to enable more employees to work from home or be on call at home, and to limit any loss of income. (We have attached basic workplace guidance fact sheet.) We've been successful in many instances-but there are still a number of employers who are NOT doing enough to protect their employees who are on the job, who are keeping employees at worksites when they could be sent home, and who are refusing to keep employees in pay status, even if they have COVID-19! Our union will press on to keep the heat on those employers.
The employer has the right to make determinations as to who can and cannot work from home. But certainly we have a right and a duty to argue against those determinations if employees are unnecessarily put at risk. In some instances, employers have not made a good faith effort to identify every possible employee who could work remotely from home or just be at home on call.
Unfortunately, the terminology being used to make these determinations is 'essential' and 'non-essential'. We know that many of your members are arguing vigorously that they are 'non-essential' so that they can remain at home. We would urge you to try to rephrase the case to one of "deferring" their work assignments rather than focus on their 'non-essential' status. If this crisis continues for months rather than weeks, we could all too likely be confronting a large number of layoffs-and it is all too possible that anyone designated as 'non-essential' would be first targeted in that situation.
Even more unfortunate, layoffs have already begun in a few of our local unions. The Council has developed a basic fact sheet to help members who are laid off access benefits and other supports, as well as an FAQ regarding UI benefits. A copy of each is attached for your use if layoffs are underway in your local.
AFSCME has also been working vigorously for legislative and regulatory changes at the federal and state level that can strengthen employee protections and employee rights. Our union was a key force in lobbying Congress for passage of the Families First measure which is intended to ensure that no employee who contracts COVID-19 has to lose pay while off work or medically quarantined and to aid employees who need time off for child care purposes because of COVID-19 related school or child care closures. We are now waiting for USDOL to issue regulations implementing the new law. All provisions are supposed to be in effect by April 2. We are also in the process of developing an employee fact sheet on this new law that can be distributed to your members.
Our union is also front and center in the battle over additional federal legislation to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus threat. Republicans in Congress are pushing for big bailouts for big corporations-without any restrictions on how the new funds could be used. Democrats-and AFSCME--are pressing for more money to go directly to working families-and for a significant infusion of funds to state and local governments to prevent the massive service cutbacks and employee layoffs that are looming on the horizon of this pandemic.
We wanted you to know as well that the Pritzker Administration is working very intensively on a plan to make child care available to all employees deemed essential pursuant to the Executive Order the governor issued last Friday. We will keep you apprised of all developments in that respect.
We received word today that SERS (state employees retirement system) is greatly slowed down in processing retirement filings which may delay scheduled retirements. SERS employees are mostly working remotely and putting top priority on ensuring that all current retirees receive their pension checks on schedule. We are now checking with other retirement systems-IMRF, SURS, MEABF, Cook County--to determine if there are similar problems with processing new retirements. Again, we will keep you informed as further information is available.
Council 31 is doing everything possible to continue our vitally important work. Our support staff are working remotely from home or on reduced office schedules to make sure that our switchboards can continue to take member calls, that membership cards are processed, that payroll is made, that required reports are produced and submitted. Our staff representatives, mostly working remotely from home, are in regular contact with all of you and together you have devised ways to address problems and concerns regarding virus prevention at your work locations. Our policy, contract administration and legal staff are also working remotely-tracking CDC and other recommendations for best practices in COVID-19 prevention; assessing new laws, regulations, and executive orders; responding to the numerous press calls we're receiving; updating our FB page and sending blast emails out to members; organizing grassroots lobbying on critical issues still before us. And our organizing staff are still reaching out to new members who want to form a union at their workplace.
Communication is vital and we would urge all of you to keep in regular contact with your members via email, social media, phone trees, etc.-especially with regard to policies and procedures that can help safeguard against the coronavirus. It's vitally important to secure protections and rights for members-and equally important to be sure they know of the work the union has done on their behalf.
The Council is currently exploring additional means of member communication-including a special "hotline" for coronavirus issues and teletown hall meetings.
Council 31 is cancelling all scheduled trainings, standing committee meetings, roundtables, lobby days, etc. during March and April. Wherever feasible we will be holding such gatherings via conference call, teleconference, or webinar. In addition, we are working to set up state of Illinois third level grievance meetings via teleconference.
We will also be working with you to ensure that we can continue to welcome, orient, educate and sign up on membership cards any new employees hired during these unprecedented times.
We know that many of you have struggled to determine how best to conduct local union business and meet all constitutional requirements. Attached please find guidance from the International Union to aid you in making these determinations. You should immediately cancel local union meetings which, in many cases, have the potential to exceed the 10-person limit on gatherings imposed by the governor's recent executive order. Local union executive boards can meet by phone while the governor's 'shelter in place' order is in effect to make any necessary decisions.
We also wanted to let you know of two important decisions that were made at the AFSCME International Executive Board (IEB) meeting that was held by telephone yesterday. First, and most importantly, the Board expressed our union's strong commitment to defeating Donald Trump in November. If anyone needed further evidence of Trump's failures as president, his confused, diffused, and self-absorbed response to the coronavirus pandemic is driving that reality home to us every day. Throughout the primary contest, the IEB has refrained from making an endorsement in order to first determine which candidate could best garner the support of voters. Recognizing that candidate now is clearly Joe Biden, the IEB voted unanimously to support his candidacy for President of the United States.
The Board also voted not to hold this year's Biennial Convention in Los Angeles as planned, but rather to build out the various technological tools needed to hold the Convention remotely within the same time frame in August. Further details will be coming soon from the International Union.
In conclusion, we again salute you for your efforts to safeguard the health and well-being of all of your members. We know that many of you have volunteered to take on difficult assignments on your job, in addition to your union responsibilities. We know that many others have additional child care (or elder care) responsibilities that require your time and your commitment as well. You can be assured that both of us-and every member of the Council 31 staff-is working every day to do all that we can to protect the health and economic security of AFSCME members at this critical time.
Roberta Lynch, Executive Director
Mike Newman, Deputy Director