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

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

“I bring you urgency from the workers who are making it happen every day. ... How do we honor their commitment?” Gates said, with the union again highlighting the discrepancy between the maximum two weeks of paid parental leave that Chicago Public Schools employees receive and the three months granted to city employees as of Jan. 1.

“As a profession of women we deserve that. ... We can’t espouse 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 CPS “remains committed to exploring an updated parental leave policy and ... is taking the necessary time to conduct a preliminary review of our policies and engage with the union leadership to bargain over how to best support our team members who are new parents.” The spokesperson said any update to district policy will also require a 30-day public comment period, community engagement and an equity review.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the union representing more than 20,000 CPS teachers, aides and other school personnel have battled over resolving the diverging parental leave policies in dueling news conferences in recent weeks.

Last week, CTU delivered a petition to City Hall demanding “equality in the application of the new city policy for expectant mothers and parents.” Lightfoot contended an update to the district’s parental leave policy must be negotiated in the collective bargaining process, not enacted through a Board of Education vote as the union sought.

“I want this to be a policy of not only the city of Chicago, but our sister agencies. But it has to be done through the collective bargaining process. They need to get at the table,” Lightfoot said. The mayor’s office first announced the 12-week leave granted to around 32,000 city employees in a Sept. 30 news release, crediting the policy update to an agreement with AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

New parent Kassandra Tsitsopoulos, a 17-year CPS employee and member of CTU’s executive board, called the far shorter parental leave policy in the district “abysmal”. After an emergency C-section, Tsitsopoulos said she had to use all the sick days she’d banked in order to extend her time home with her daughter. “If I get sick, I won’t have the days to stay home with her,” she said, urging city and CPS officials to work with the union to “negotiate the details and approve it as soon as possible.”

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

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

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

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