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Pritzker, AFSCME enter arbitration over state employee vaccine mandate as Illinois prepares for 500K child vaccine doses

Ahead of a deadline for state workers in congregate settings to get their first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Tuesday, Gov. JB Pritzker and the state’s largest public employee union have deadlocked over the vaccine mandate for more than 12,000 workers in Illinois prisons and juvenile detention centers.

Meanwhile, Pritzker's office is preparing for Illinois to receive 500,000 kid-sized doses of Pfizer's COVID vaccine as federal regulators next week are expected to approve it for emergency use authorization in children ages 5 through 11. That announcement comes after the governor on Friday ordered more than 55,000 daycare workers statewide to get vaccinated.

AFSCME split

Bargaining units within AFSCME Council 31 have split in negotiations with Pritzker’s office. The governor on Monday touted a new vaccine mandate agreement covering 7,800 AFSCME-represented state employees who work at state-run veterans’ homes and facilities for adults with disabilities. But a news release from Pritzker’s office announced he’d reached impasse with thousands more workers unionized under AFSCME.

The bulk of state employees in adult and juvenile corrections facilities will miss Tuesday’s deadline for first vaccine doses as negotiations enter into arbitration. But the nearly 10,000 state employees covered under six separate union agreements — including the newest deal with AFSCME — will have to comply with Pritzker’s twice-moved first dose cutoff date.

“Our most vulnerable residents, such as veterans who can’t live on their own and adults living with developmental disabilities, have no choice but to live among workers at these facilities,” Pritzker said Monday. “They deserve the safest possible homes that we can provide, and that includes the protection of a vaccinated community.”

The governor has faced intense criticism on his administration’s handling of a COVID outbreak at the state-run veterans’ home in LaSalle last fall, which ultimately infected the vast majority of residents and staff at the facility and killed 36 — more than a quarter of the home’s residents. The former Department of Veterans’ Affairs chief frequently blamed community transmission for the outbreak, though a later investigation found poor infection controls and lax oversight were more to blame.

As of mid-October, 75% of staff in Illinois’ four active veterans’ homes had gotten at least one COVID shot, compared with 46% of employees at Illinois prisons and other Illinois Department of Corrections facilities. Staff vaccination rates at IDOC’s adult transition centers vary widely with Chicago’s facility clocking in at 94% while staff at a similar facility in Peoria has a 13% vaccination rate, according to reporting from ABC 7 Chicago.

Pritzker announced the vaccine requirement for state workers in congregate settings nearly three months ago in early August, but AFSCME balked at the governor pointing out low staff vaccination rates at veterans’ homes to illustrate the need for mandates. Council 31 President Roberta Lynch said at the time the union “strongly oppose[d] any effort to define [state workers] as part of the problem.”

The union on Monday said it had filed paperwork with the Illinois Labor Relations Board to get vaccine mandate arbitration going on behalf of the roughly 10,300 security employees — like correctional officers — that AFSCME represents at the state’s departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice.

But Pritzker and AFSCME disagree on what comes next for the 1,900 non-security employees at state prisons and juvenile detention centers who don’t have the right to arbitration. The governor claims those clerical and other support workers must follow his executive order and get their first vaccine dose by Tuesday. But the union disagrees that the parties are at impasse and is also planning on bringing the matter to the state’s labor board.

“AFSCME is continuing our efforts to share authoritative information with union members about the benefits of getting vaccinated,” the union said in a statement Monday. “Safe and effective, vaccines are the best way to protect ourselves, our families, our coworkers and communities, to defeat the pandemic and return to normal.”

The five previous vaccine mandate agreements between Pritzker and smaller unions representing state workers in congregate settings lay out progressive disciplinary actions for any employee who refused to get vaccinated, all ending in discharge. But AFSCME’s deal stipulates that stubborn workers who decline to get their COVID shots will instead face unpaid leave or a layoff — not a firing.

All of the vaccine mandate agreements include narrow exemptions for medical contraindications or sincerely held religious beliefs, and also gives state workers an additional personal day to get vaccinated.

500K vaccine doses for kids

Pritzker on Monday also laid out plans for the COVID vaccine's rollout once the federal Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control approve the Pfizer vaccine's use in kids aged five through 11. That could be as early as next week, and Pritzker said Illinois is set to receive 500,000 of the child-sized doses and needles shortly thereafter.

More than 100,000 of those doses will go to major pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS, but the state has been signing up pediatricians, independent pharmacies and other healthcare providers to take shares of Illinois' allocation. School-based clinics, which have sprung up across the state since Pfizer's vaccine was approved for youth ages 12 and up in May, will expand to the younger population, Pritzker's office said.

The governor urged parents of the 1.1 million kids ages five through 11 to get their children vaccinated by Christmas, though he acknowledged many families may not want to be first in line.

At Pritzker's Chicago news conference Monday, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said she was so relieved when her school-aged children got vaccinated this spring.

“I wanted them to feel a sense of safety when they were at school. I wanted them to not have to quarantine should they eve exposed to someone with COVID and not miss more in-person days," Ezike said. "I wanted them to be able to play sports again. I wanted them to be able to hang out with their friends.”

Hannah covers state government and politics for Capitol News Illinois. She's been dedicated to the statehouse beat since interning at NPR Illinois in 2014, with subsequent stops at WILL-AM/FM, Law360, Capitol Fax and The Daily Line before returning to NPR Illinois in 2020 and moving on to CNI in 2023.