‘I’m begging you’: Distraught tollway workers ask board, Pritzker to avert potential layoffs

Illinois tollway employees packed the boardroom Thursday, some of them in tears, as they implored agency leaders to keep their jobs intact.

SEIU Local 73 members, who include former toll collectors now working as customer call takers, said they feared layoffs affecting over 100 people. They appealed both to the tollway board and Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who appoints its members, for help.

“Losing my career with the Illinois tollway would be devastating,” Melissa Jacobson said. “It would affect me emotionally, mentally and financially. It would affect my opportunity to have my home, pay utilities and the list will go on.

“Please, I’m begging you — for all of us — do not get rid of us.”

Tollway officials said they “did not lay off toll collectors or any other employees.”

“The Illinois tollway is currently in negotiations with SEIU for a new contract, which includes the elimination of toll collector and related positions currently filled by about 135 union employees,” agency leaders said in a statement.

“These union employees will have the opportunity to seek other tollway positions and will be provided with career counseling, wellness support and other supportive services. Relative to layoffs, the tollway will be negotiating the terms with union representatives.”

Union members were negotiating a new contract when layoff plans were announced in March, Local 73 officials said, adding the jobs will be shifted to a private contractor.

Tollway spokesman Dan Rozek noted that the “tollway has not given any layoff notices to employees. The tollway and union are negotiating the date the layoffs will take effect.”

  Tollway workers say they fear potential layoffs prior to a board meeting Thursday. Marni Pyke/

Employees said they handle a wide range of calls from assisting seniors with bills to walking people through affixing a new I-PASS sticker on their windshields.

“Each day, every worker receives well over 40 calls from customers needing assistance,” Local 73 member Clovia Lockridge said. “With each phone call, we strive to find a resolution, ensuring our customers are not just satisfied, but delighted.”

Vasilios Athanasoulias, a 23-year tollway employee, said it takes $300 a month to pay for medication for his wife who has a disability.

If unemployed, “I would hate to see how much I would pay without insurance,” Athanasoulias said, his voice breaking.

Tollway officials said investments in technology and the transition to all-electronic tolling has been ongoing for many years but accelerated in 2020 with COVID-19 when the agency stopped cash collections.

During the pandemic, the agency “provided its toll collectors a means by which to continue tollway employment until the tollway could reevaluate cash collection after the pandemic resolved,” they noted.

Rozek said the tollway began training SEIU members to transition to jobs as call takers in 2020.

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