Cook County offers to chip in on food costs for migrants, approves delay to paid-leave mandate for schools, parks

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has proposed chipping in as much as $70 million to help cover the city of Chicago’s cost to feed migrants in the city’s intake and shelter system and potentially pay for other expenses.

The proposal is part of Preckwinkle’s commitment, along with Gov. J.B. Pritzker, to help pay for expected costs of new migrant arrivals in Chicago this year. This is the first time the county will help pay for food. Until now, its contribution to the migrant response has centered almost entirely on health care at Cook County Health.

If passed by the Cook County Board, the measure would not add to the county’s bottom line. Preckwinkle is asking county commissioners to reallocate money already set aside in an emergency fund for migrant health care in this year’s budget and instead use it to “reimburse the City of Chicago for food service or other new arrival operating costs throughout calendar year 2024,” according to the proposal.

County commissioners are expected to vote on the matter next month.

CCH has expanded capacity at its Belmont Cragin clinic to provide care to migrants and sent mobile teams to shelters. The cost for that care — including things like vaccinations, physicals and prescriptions — has fluctuated between $1.5 million and $3 million a month since the beginning of the crisis. The county’s chief financial officer, Tanya Anthony, told reporters Thursday that funds already set aside for migrant health care — about $34 million — would cover anticipated expenses for the year.

The latest health stress on the system is a measles outbreak that has hit one of the city’s largest shelters in Pilsen.

Dr. Erik Mikaitis, interim CEO for the health system, said CCH has “cared for several of those patients” and is working closely with the Chicago Department of Public Health, the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control “to coordinate a collective response,” including alerting its clinical teams to look out for measles symptoms in patients.

There are no confirmed cases in suburban Cook County, but the county’s Department of Public Health is helping with contact tracing efforts for about 90 people. CCH staff are required to be vaccinated against measles, so “the risk to staff is low,” Mikaitis said.

Also Thursday, the Cook County Board voted to maintain a mandate that suburban park and school districts grant their workers paid time off, but will push out the start date until January 2025.

The county’s time-off policy matches state law, which took effect earlier this year, and slightly expands upon it. The rules require employers to provide up to 40 hours of paid leave per year. That time could be frontloaded or accrued one hour at a time for every 40 hours worked. It passed the county board hastily in mid-December.

Cook County businesses would have been subject to those state rules starting in 2024 whether or not the county board took any action. But the board moved to expand covered employers to include park and school districts. Leaders from several suburban districts revolted, saying if leave benefits were extended to part-time workers, it would drive up costs and potentially lead to service cuts or fee hikes. Several argued that their 2024 budgets — and revenues from their property tax levies — had already been set for the year.

Several suburban commissioners signed on to a proposal to exempt those districts entirely, citing budget constraints and unusual cases in which some districts were geographically split between exempt villages or into collar counties. Home-rule municipalities can opt out or in to the county’s rules at any point in time.

Organized labor pushed to keep the park and school mandate in place, arguing that government workers deserved to earn as much time off as their counterparts in private industry. The compromised January deadline gives districts more time to prepare for added costs and for county administrators to specify coverage requirements for districts that are split between different towns or other counties.

The county’s Department of Human Rights and Ethics, the rulemaking body on the issue, said Buffalo Grove, Norridge, Oak Park and Orland Park passed their own paid-leave legislation last year. Northlake and Schaumburg have opted out of the county’s leave ordinance.

aquig@chicagotribune.com