Seeking Back-Pay for Employees Working During Pandemic

An Alderperson’s proposal mandating certain Evanston employees receive hazard pay for work performed during the COVID-19 pandemic, will not move forward, with some Council members saying they needed more information to support the legislation.

Evanston City Council members at their June 14 meeting voted 7-2 against a proposal from Council member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, that would have required larger retailers or franchises located in the City to pay essential workers an additional $250 per month on top of their base pay for worked performed during Illinois’ Coronavirus response.

Council Member Clare Kelly, 1st Ward, joined Mr. Reid in voting in favor.

That vote followed a 5-4 vote, one short of the two-thirds majority – or six votes – needed to pass Mr. Reid’s request to suspend the rules and hold the issue over to the next meeting.

Council members Ms. Kelly; Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward; Bobby Burns, 5th Ward; Mr. Reid; and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, voted in support of the hold.

Voting against were Council members Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward; Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward; Thomas Suffredin, 6th Ward; and Eleanor Revelle, 7th. Ward.

Mr. Reid sharply criticized Council members who voted against suspending the rules to allow the hold. He had said earlier in the meeting that some key changes he had worked with the City’s Corporation Counsel Nicholas Cummings did not make it into the proposal voted on at the June 14 meeting.

“What you’re saying to our workers is that you don’t give a damn about what they’ve gone through during this pandemic – that you don’t even care about holding this to get the information that you’re looking for.”

He said his words applied “especially for the Council members who sat here for the last year during the pandemic and did nothing. You should be ashamed.”

During earlier discussion, though, Council member Wynne suggested Mr. Reid should bear responsibility, failing to carry through on getting feedback from businesses and others on the impact of the legislation.

“As I said when this was originally brought up, there has to be a process. There have to be stakeholders engaged; we need to have an understanding of the impact,” she said.

“And from the correspondence I’ve received from the businesses, none of them have been contacted by you, Council member Reid. Have you had a meeting with any of these large businesses?

“I have reached out and gotten in touch with some of these businesses to let them know this was happening,” Ms. Wynne continued, “and they have written back. But I haven’t seen any correspondence from you about reaching out to any of these businesses and letting them know and participate in this process.”

Ms. Wynne drew a comparison with the Council’s discussion of phasing out leaf-blowers, held earlier in the evening.

“Every single one of us up here sees the value of prohibiting leaf blowers,” she said. “But we recognize that we have stakeholders in this community who will be negatively impacted and we want to make sure they get to participate in the process.”

Ms. Fleming said she understood Ms. Wynne’s point about reaching out to businesses, such as Target, about possible impact.

On the other hand, “My assumption would be by doing that they are going to tell us how great they are, that they don’t need to pay this, they can’t afford to pay it. I don’t know that going out to them should necessarily change what we do.”

Other Council members spoke of the timing and the need for more information to back up the legislation.

“My comments haven’t changed,” said Mr. Braithwaite. “We’re now open, and we’re moving beyond the recovery phase. If we want to take a look at this at a later date, I’d be happy to entertain it. But given the fact that we have had a number of businesses that closed, we have a number of businesses that have already participated [compensated employees], I think the urgency of this has passed.”

Mr. Nieuwsma said research he did and with the help of an intern pointed to 19 stores locally that might be affected by a hazard-pay ordinance.

Further, he said some of the stores on that list may have been exempt from the hazard-pay provisions because of measures they took on their own to compensate workers.

To evaluate the impact, though, “requires more than just 10 minutes on Google from one [Council member]. I don’t think that’s sufficient due diligence that would allow me to support this ordinance at this time.”

Mr. Reid said that while he appreciated the feedback from his colleagues about reaching out, some did not follow their own advice on the leaf-blower ordinance.

“I don’t know folks sat down with Nature’s Perspective [one of the companies voicing strong opposition] as the leaf-blower [ordinance] was being drafted.

“So I would hope that as folks are chiding me, we hold ourselves to that same standard and ensure that we’re doing the same thing,” he said.

Mr. Reid said he did reach out or had communication with a number of groups on the proposed hazard pay ordinance, including the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, United Food and Commercial Workers, Kroger and Target.

He said the legislation is needed, maintaining, “While we are stepping out of the worst of the pandemic, with vaccination-levels steadily increasing, we know that we’re not out of the thick of it.

“We know that the moratorium on evictions has not yet been lifted; we know that utility shut-offs are going to be happening,” he told Council members.

He said the changes he had been working with the City’s Corporation Counsel included removing a provision that called for the hazard pay to be awarded retroactively, dating back 15 weeks from the date of passage of the ordinance. 

Also, the payment would be tied to Governor J.B. Pritzker’s State of Emergency declaration to determine the period that should be covered.

Council member Bobby Burns also said it was “unfortunate” that the hold did not go through, which could have allowed amendments to be added to the document.

“You know I have heard from the business community [about the proposal] but I haven’t heard anybody say they can’t afford it,” he said, responding to some of the reasons raised against the proposal.

“I haven’t heard anybody say they operated at a net loss. I haven’t heard anybody threaten to close their business or move away from Evanston.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.