Executive Director Reports

Our work matters!

In early 2022—January 4 to be precise—DCFS child protection investigator Deidre Silas was brutally stabbed to death while making a home visit to check on an at-risk child. Roberta Lynch

Her death came some four years after another DCFS investigator, Pam Knight, seeking to rescue an abused child, was stomped into a coma by the abusive father. She later succumbed to her injuries.

Both of these murders received coverage in the local press and a spurt of interest from local legislators, but there was little effort made to fully understand the challenges, or value, of the work DCFS employees do. Since then, reports of the child welfare system’s failures have returned to the headlines and legislative hearings, but there has been virtually no mention of the countless children DCFS employees regularly save from death or grievous harm.

Time and again we see this same kind of indifference toward so much of the work that is done by public employees—work that is the foundation of our social order, work that maintains our communities, educates our children, aids those most in need, and, not infrequently, saves lives.

While corporations get kudos when they do little more than make a charitable donation and nonprofit organizations are singled out for media profiles and visits from politicians, public agencies—and the employees who keep them going—seldom receive more than a glancing nod. Yet these employees often must work under highly stressful, even dangerous, conditions and are commonly under-resourced for the tasks they are expected to fulfill.

Nothing has demonstrated this profound lack of appreciation more than events of the past three years. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the demands on public employees increased exponentially. This global crisis truly and deeply required a public response—public health, public transit, public safety, public sanitation—the list could go on and on.

While others hunkered down, public employees stepped up, meeting the unprecedented challenges that the pandemic presented. In Illinois state government, thousands of employees reported to their worksites every single day (and night) to care for vulnerable individuals with severe disabilities, to support ailing veterans, and to maintain order and security among incarcerated individuals.

Local government employees were out there on the job too—assuring trash pick-up, keeping county jails secure, conducting COVID testing and vaccination programs, and much more.

Public service workers of every kind answered the call. They worked tirelessly, often to the point of exhaustion, to meet the needs of their communities.

Through it all, there was little in the way of accolades for, even recognition of, the sacrifices made—the thousands who became sick with COVID, those who brought it home to family members, those who acutely felt the stress of masking and testing day in and day out.

Then just as the severity of the crisis began to abate and a semblance of normalcy returned, just as employees believed they would no longer have to put their families at risk, just as politicians were hailing the progress made in beating back the pandemic, another kind of crisis confronted those working in the public sector: a drastic shortage of workers.

While hiring as of late has proven difficult in every type of employment, data show that the public sector has been hardest hit, with widespread shortfalls.

This crisis is far less visible than COVID. In fact, political leaders often prefer to keep it invisible, unwilling to shake up convoluted and outmoded hiring systems, adjust salaries, or fix oppressive working conditions.

Yet those are precisely the kind of measures that are needed to address the inhumane working conditions that the shortage is giving rise to.

Council 31 recently conducted a survey of AFSCME members who work on the frontlines in state of Illinois round-the-clock congregate settings—correctional facilities, psychiatric hospitals, developmental centers and vets’ homes—and the results are deeply disturbing.

In order to maintain staffing levels needed to keep the individuals in their charge safe, employees are forced to work overtime again and again—not just an hour or two here and there, but double shifts, 16 hours straight, three or four times a week, frequently with little to no advance warning. Employees often don’t get breaks or lunches; some report getting only four hours’ sleep after working a double before having to head back to work. Exhaustion is their norm.

Family life suffers greatly under such conditions. Union members report missing activities and gatherings—Mothers’ Day, Christmas, birthdays, children’s sports. Tensions increase and arguments become more commom. A number of staff wrote that the long hours and pressures of the job have led to divorce.

With such low staffing levels, assaults on employees by inmates or forensic patients have become far more common. Workers report broken noses, eye damage, concussions, and injuries to every part of the body.

In other words, these frontline employees are living under great pressure, facing great risks, and sacrificing a great deal. And yet, like so many others in the public service, their work is seldom acknowledged or appreciated by our elected officials, who give speech after speech patting themselves on the back for meeting far lesser challenges.

So let me say it clearly here. To all the public employees who keep our state and our communities strong: Thank you! We see what you do every day, we value the essential services you provide, and we are determined to keep up the fight to improve staffing levels and secure safer and more humane working conditions for all.