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Cook County employees to begin returning to offices next month; buildings expected to open to public July 6: Preckwinkle executive order

Friday, May 29, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Alice Yin

Cook County employees will start reporting to the office again next month and offices will officially reopen to the public in early July, sparking a discussion with the union representing workers on how to safely socially distance while at work.

On June 15, department heads and bureau chiefs with the office of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and other elected offices are required to show up to headquarters and direct employees on returning to work, according to a Friday executive order from Preckwinkle. County clerk’s office employees are coming back earlier, on June 1, although facilities won’t be open to the public until later, spokesman James Scalzitti said.

Cook County buildings are “anticipated” to allow patrons inside starting July 6, the order states. Customers will have to adhere to social distancing mandates, and the facilities may reopen using a “phased-in approach.”

SEIU Local 73, which represents Illinois public employees, spoke with offices that are reopening to ensure social distancing will be met, as some of its members have fretted over the announcement, President Dian Palmer said.

“I was quite concerned about going back because I don’t think nationally we are where we want to be with this virus,” Palmer said. “Many of our members are very afraid. … But I do recognize that they have a plan of how they’re going to do it.”

Scalzitti said the clerk’s office, which includes the vital records, taxes and elections departments, will be protected with social distancing. That includes staggered schedules, added barriers, personal protective equipment kits, distanced workstations and ramped-up sanitation.

“All discussions on reopening to date have been positive, focused on balancing service and safety, and all viewpoints are heard and respected,” Scalzitti said.

Most Cook County employees, who are deemed essential, have not been in the office since Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order took effect on March 21, although some have worked from home. Discussions were usually encouraging as offices and the SEIU hammered out a strategy to keep workers safe, Palmer said.

Nevertheless, the return to work has rattled union members who fear getting sick from the coronavirus, Palmer said, especially if they have underlying health issues.

“You know, the person you worked with yesterday is not at work today or tomorrow or a couple other days, and then you hear through the grapevine that that person is sick,” Palmer said while illustrating employees’ worries. “They’re so scared to go back to work.”

So far, Palmer said offices promised to shuffle desks around to follow the 6-foot distance requirement and install Plexiglas in front of places where patrons and employees would interact.

In addition, some offices, such as the clerk’s, will attempt a “rolling” schedule that entails employees being split into an “A” and “B” group, with only one section coming to the office at a time to reduce exposure, Palmer said.

The executive order on Friday is an amendment of Preckwinkle’s previous disaster proclamation amid the coronavirus pandemic. The updated work schedule comes as Illinois enters phase three of Pritzker’s five-phase reopening plan.

 



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