Low-wage school custodians from Elgin, Wheaton, Rockford and other areas picketed outside of the Illinois Association of School Boards conference in Chicago Friday morning, demanding paid holiday and sick days.
Chanting "Hey, District U46. Your low wages make us sick," the custodians, hired by school district contractors and represented by SEIU* Local 1, also called for better pay and health benefits.
"We want to show (school board officials) that we're not happy with what they pay to our custodians," Carolina Villalobos, an SEIU Local 1 organizer, said outside of the Hyatt Regency Chicago, where the conference was held.
Janitors in "Elgin, Rockford and Wheaton don't have health insurance. They don't even have a sick day," she stressed.
The lack of sick days forces many custodians to go to work while they are ill, because they cannot afford to take a day off without pay.
"If you miss a day, that's like $80, $90 off your pay," said Shana Spearman, a Rockford Public Schools District 205 custodian for nearly 10 years. Spearman said she earns $11.21 an hour.
Paid sick leave is important, workers said, because they would not have to sacrifice pay to take care of their health. It would also help prevent workplace infections.
"If we're sick, we can get children sick," Spearman stressed. "We can get the staff sick. It's very important for us to get sick days."
Here's more from Spearman and scenes from the protest:
Over recent weeks, custodians and union officials have sent letters to the Elgin, Rockford and Wheaton school boards and testified at their meetings, urging the districts to bring on new contractors that would provide custodians with higher wages and benefits like paid sick leave.
The campaign comes after janitors did not receive what they consider to be fair wages or additional benefits like paid sick leave in their recent contract negotiations.
"The school board has the authority to dictate the terms of the district's contracts," reads a recent SEIU Local 1 letter sent to the school districts. "The board can approve only bids it deems responsible. The board can also direct the superintendent to set standards for wages and benefits or stipulate contract standards in the budget."
Janitors in Wheaton, however, did win two small victories recently, including one paid holiday on Christmas Day and a 1.7 percent raise, union organizers said. Still, that falls short of what the workers say they deserve.
"While we recently received a modest cost of living allowance and one paid holiday (Christmas Day), we will be forced to tighten our belts over the Thanksgiving holiday when we go without pay," Maria Apaez, a custodian at Wheaton Community Unit School District 200, wrote in a Tuesday letter to the school board. "And without a single paid sick day, we are forced to risk spreading infectious illnesses at the schools to teachers and students, or sacrifice the income that puts food on our family's table. What's worse, how can we afford to lose a day's wages to take care of a sick child of our own?"
"We need your help," the letter adds. "Something has to be done because what's happening is not fair. We need a real wage increase to support our families, and basic benefits that will ensure a healthy and fair school community."
Villalobos said Wheaton's school superintendent agreed Thursday to meet in December with the union and janitors to discuss the matter further. The union has yet to hear back from the two other school districts, organizers said.
Hugo Barrientos, a school custodian in Elgin Area School District U46 for 12 years who earns $10.80 an hour, said custodians simply want to be treated with respect and fairness.
"We're the people in the community," he said. "We're parents, and we work hard. So we need at least sick days."
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