Cook County anticipated to exempt schools, park districts from new paid-leave law

Cook County Board commissioners are contemplating an amendment to their controversial paid-leave ordinance that took effect in January that would eliminate a key difference from the similar new state law by exempting school and park districts.

Like Illinois’ Paid Leave for All Workers Act, the county law also guarantees 40 hours of paid time off per year that can be taken at any time for any reason.

Another difference of the county law is its specific language regarding an employee’s right to sue his or her employer for any violations of this right.

Numerous Cook County municipalities have questioned the reason for a largely redundant county law they say creates the possibility of understaffed shifts in their police, fire and public works departments on particular days.

And newly nonexempt school and park districts have claimed a financial hardship from the need to staff part-time and seasonal positions with the understanding that 40 hours of paid time off comes with every new hire.

Some Cook County municipalities already have copied their previous actions with the state law by using home-rule authority to opt themselves out as employers. These include Glenview, Northfield, Park Ridge, Streamwood, Wheeling, Wilmette and Winnetka, according to responses to a Northwest Municipal Conference survey.

Others have gone a step beyond what they did with the state law by opting out all employers within their boundaries. This includes Buffalo Grove, Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Schaumburg.

This would seem to already free a multijurisdictional school district like Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, which staffs campuses in the latter three villages.

But the Prospect Heights Park District is one that lies in a non-home-rule municipality without an evident way of opting even itself out as it did with the Illinois law.

Christina Ferraro, park district executive director, said many in her same position attended the Jan. 25 Cook County Board meeting to request exemption. For the Prospect Heights Park District itself, she estimates a financial impact of $150,000 to $250,000 per year, if the exemption isn’t granted.

“We also need to include the pay for the substitute employees when the others are on paid leave so business is not interrupted,” she said. “Our estimates include a small amount for unknown expenditures. It’s also an administrative project to track this for the district. This financial impact is significant to a small park district with a total operating budget of $6 million.”

Ferraro added, this challenge to making ends meet is not merely an internal pressure but one that affects the patrons that park districts serve.

“We have been discussing ways to potentially pay for this as our operating budget is very lean and some possibilities are to increase program fees, which may make programs cost-prohibitive and then be canceled due to lack of registration, or decreasing the number of staff we have for lifeguards, summer camp, preschool program, etc., or cut the hours of operation,” she said. “The Illinois state minimum wage rate is now $14 per hour, and we are already competing for potential employees who are being offered higher wages at nearby grocery stores, fast food chains, etc.”

At the Jan. 25 meeting, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and nine of the 17 commissioners sponsored an amendment that will be considered by the Legislation and Intergovernmental Relations Committee on Feb. 28, a day before the board meets again.

“In response to feedback from various school districts and park districts, the Board of Commissioners took proactive measures to address concerns by introducing this amendment,” said Jennifer King, deputy director of Cook County’s Commission on Human Rights and Board of Ethics. “This strategic move is aimed at alleviating the distinctive administrative, operational, and financial challenges faced by these districts, ensuring they are not burdened disproportionately. The amendment aligns with the State’s Paid Leave law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.”

As the county ordinance took effect so quickly after its mid-December approval, enforcement was intentionally delayed until Feb. 1. But officials already were aware of the potential exemption of school and park districts by then.

“In enforcing the Cook County paid leave ordinance, the Cook County Commission on Human Rights’ first goal is to ensure compliance, and, when appropriate, it will use its discretion in making final determinations in its investigations,” the commission said in a statement.

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