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Mayor disputes union claims that she interfered with parental leave policy for Chicago schools

A group of men and women stand in front of a an elementary school on the first day of the new school year.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot disputes the union’s accusation she interfered with a plan to extend parental leave for Chicago Public Schools employees, mirroring a new policy for city workers

Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat

Facing mounting criticism from the Chicago Teachers Union, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Wednesday that allegations she halted a policy to expand paid parental leave benefits to staff at Chicago Public Schools were “baseless and untrue.” 

The mayor and Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez sent separate letters on Tuesday to union President Stacy Davis Gates asking the union to meet and negotiate over the policy.

The dispute over parental leave is the latest between the union and the mayor, who have had a fraught relationship since before Lightfoot was elected in 2019. Labor tensions have prompted an 11-day strike, and two actions during the height of the COVID pandemic. Speaking at City Hall on Wednesday, union vice president Jackson Potter said their disputes have become a pattern.     

“With this mayor, something that should become a cakewalk is always a dogfight,” Potter said.

The new city policy, approved in September, extends parental leave for about 32,000 city employees to 12 weeks, up from the previous policy of up to six weeks. The policy took effect on Jan. 1. 

But the extension does not apply to Chicago Public Schools employees. Sister agencies, including Chicago Public Schools, the Park District, and the Chicago Housing Authority, have been encouraged to adopt the same policy, but Lightfoot’s letter said that for those agencies, the policy change needs to be negotiated separately. The teachers union disagrees. 

“I’ll make the proposal right now,” Potter said. “Give us what you gave city workers.” 

Chicago Teachers Union members said that the union had been working with the district to roll out its own changes to the existing family leave policy. But they claimed that Lightfoot was the one who stood in the way. 

The union posted an update to members on its website in November that said the changes were set for a school board vote in January. But Potter said the union was notified before winter break that the vote would not happen. Union members accused the mayor’s labor relations team of backpedaling in December and placing the policy change on hold indefinitely.

On Wednesday, educators and union organizers delivered 4,000 signatures to the mayor’s office on a petition demanding that Lightfoot extend the policy to school staff. 

“Why are you leaving out a division of city workers that is comprised of 80% women?” teacher Alli Soldner asked. “Do our babies not deserve that same bond? Do I not deserve that same time to heal? It doesn’t make sense.”

Several aldermen and aldermanic candidates — including Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (34th), Matt Martin (47th), Jeannette Taylor (20th) — also called on the mayor and Chicago Public Schools to extend the policies to Chicago schoolteachers.

During a separate press conference Tuesday afternoon at Prosser Career Academy, teacher Kassandra Tsitsopoulos, a new mom, described the existing parental leave policy “abysmal” and “medieval,” and added that she had to use all her sick days for leave. 

Now, she worries that if she or her child gets sick, she won’t be able to take time off. 

“If you want to attract people to the teaching profession, you can’t shortchange people on parental leave,” Tsitsopoulos said.

Teacher Erin Jimenez, a mother of three, said all of her pregnancies were high risk and required bed rest. She called it an emotional and financial burden worrying whether she had enough banked sick days before and after giving birth.

The physical and emotional stress created by the policy is “inhumane,” she added.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said Tuesday that inadequate parental leave policies were an issue facing teachers across the country, not just in Chicago. She criticized the mayor for not including Chicago Public Schools teachers under the policy.

“What we’ve had to do is use collective bargaining and other ways of pushing and prodding employers, because in our field, which is disproportionately female, we have a need for parental leave.” Weingarten said.

Chicago Public Schools said in a statement that it remained committed to exploring an updated parental leave policy, noting that the work was ongoing.

“CPS is taking the necessary time to review our policies and engage the union leadership to bargain over how to best support our team members who are new parents,” a spokesperson said. 

The district said it looked forward to working with the union through collective bargaining to develop a revised parental leave policy. 

Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at mpena@chalkbeat.org.

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