CTU brings demand for ‘fair’ parental leave to Chicago Board of Education: ‘We deserve it’

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President Stacy Davis Gates, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, opened public comments Wednesday at the first Board of Education meeting of the year, asking for support for teachers and staff on a range of issues, from the impact of gun violence to the duration of the parental leave for employees.

“I bring you urgency from the employees who make it possible every day. … How do we keep their promise?” Gates said, with the union again emphasizing the discrepancy between the maximum two weeks of paid parental leave Chicago Public Schools employees receive and the three months granted to city employees beginning Jan. 1.

“As a women’s profession, we deserve that. … We cannot embrace principles for women at the city level without doing it at the school level. … Why was that easier?” said Gates, who is the parent of three CPS students.

After the meeting, a district spokesperson said that CPS “remains committed to reviewing an updated parental leave policy and … is taking the necessary time to conduct a preliminary review of our policy and engage with union leadership to negotiate how we our team members who are new parents.” The spokesperson said any update to the district policy also requires a 30-day public comment period, community involvement and an equity assessment.

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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the union representing more than 20,000 CPS teachers, aides and other school personnel have battled to resolve divergent parental leave policies in dueling press conferences in recent weeks.

Last week, CTU filed a petition at city hall demanding “equality in the application of the new city policy for expectant mothers and parents.” Lightfoot argued that an update to the district’s parental leave policy should be negotiated in the collective bargaining process, and not through a vote by the Board of Education, as the union would have liked.

“I want this to be a policy of not only the City of Chicago, but also of our sister agencies. But it must be done through the collective bargaining process. They need to come to the table,” Lightfoot said. The mayor’s office first announced the 12-week furlough granted to approximately 32,000 city employees in a Sept. 30 press release, attributing the policy update to an agreement with AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and municipal employees.

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New parent Kassandra Tsitsopoulos, a 17-year-old CPS employee and member of the CTU board of directors, called the much-shortened parental leave policy in the district “appalling.” After an emergency c-section, Tsitsopoulos said she should use all the sick days she had saved to extend her time at home with her daughter. “If I get sick, I don’t have the days to stay at her house,” she said, urging the council and CPS officials to work with the union to “discuss the details and as soon as possible possible to approve”.

District CEO Pedro Martinez, who appointed Lightfoot to lead CPS in September 2021, echoed the mayor in a Jan. 17 letter to Gates. “The collective bargaining process is the ideal forum for such discussions because it allows robust discussion of the subject and its effects and allows the parties to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion,” said Martinez.

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“I’ve appreciated building a relationship with CEO Martinez,” Gates said at the Jan. 25 board meeting. “For too long we have had to challenge, fight for, shout against, demonstrate for that partnership. … We want that partnership and reciprocity. Because we deserve it.”

The debate over updating parental leave policies among city agencies is one of the latest sources of friction between Lightfoot and the teachers’ union. The contentious relationship has shaped the Feb. 28 municipal election, with longtime CTU organizer and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson among eight candidates challenging Lightfoot, who the union recently accused of bringing “chaos” to the city, in her re-election bid.

Lightfoot’s clashes with the union were a predominant theme of her first term: Just months after she was inaugurated in 2019, CTU went on strike for two weeks. The COVID-19 pandemic hit just months after, leading to several confrontations with and personal work stoppages by the union as it fought for stronger pandemic protections.

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