By Bob Uphues
The Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, announced on April 5 that it had furloughed or laid off about one third of zoo employees whose jobs are deemed "not critically essential to support the minimum operations of the organization."
The move comes amid the zoo's continued closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brookfield Zoo has been closed to the public since March 19 and had been slated to remain closed through the month of April.
But, the union that represents zookeepers at the popular attraction said Monday that it had filed grievance against the zoo in addition to an unfair labor practice charge with the federal Labor Relations Board after, according to Teamsters Local 727, the employees were "immediately furloughed, with no notice, no compensation and in violation of the collective bargaining agreement."
"I have met few people more passionate about their work then the members at the Brookfield Zoo. No matter the role, these essential workers do it with passion and pride. Brookfield Zoo has never been just a job -- it is a home for animals and workers, alike," said John Coli Jr., secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 727. "When one of Chicago's most beloved spots unilaterally furloughs dozens of Teamsters workers with no notice or pay, you have to ask yourself if management feels the same way. … To be put out on the street with no notice and no guarantee to pay their bills is unconscionable."
Zoo officials argue that with no customers coming through the gates, the zoo "has practically no earned revenue stream at this time," according to a statement announcing that the unpaid furloughs/layoffs were effective April 4 and for an unknown period of time
"The duration of the furlough/temporary layoffs is unknown at this time due to the evolving COVID-19 situation," the statement said.
While the furloughs/layoffs are in effect, employees will be eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, and they "will continue to receive medical and other benefits for a period of time."
According to Teamsters Local 727's announcement of the complaint against the Chicago Zoological Society, union employees have healthcare benefits extended through July 31.
Zoo officials declined to disclose the exact number of employees affected by the furlough/layoff decision, nor would they reveal the number of people the zoo employed prior to the announcement.
All departments of the zoo's operations were affected by the layoff order, according to the statement, with the Chicago Zoological Society "keeping staff employed who ensure the health and welfare of the zoo's animal population, maintenance and protection of the buildings and grounds and other critical support system and functions."
The union said the move places extra stress on those who remain employed as keepers and threatens their safety. In a statement released Monday, the Teamsters argued that "it also seems that that safety of areas requiring special skill and precise care, such as the zoo's venomous snakes, reptiles, bears, big cats and hoofstock are being compromised as a result of the furloughs."
In an effort to obtain some financial relief, the Chicago Zoological Society is applying for loans through the federal stimulus program recently approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump.
Teamsters Local 727 says it has responded to that new by requesting any information about the furloughs and any federal funding the zoo might receive, saying the Chicago Zoological Society "may have no choice but to reinstate the hardworking Teamsters members to qualify for the money."
Zoo officials said that the decision to furlough employees was not made lightly, that it was done with input from the society's legal counsel and that the layoffs were made in compliance with labor laws.
A Chicago Zoological Society statement in response to the union's complaint, emailed to the Landmark on Tuesday, said, "All decisions were rooted in concern for the long-term sustainability of our organization at a time when we are facing unprecedented and unanticipated financial pressures. We value the commitment and hard work of every single one of our employees. However, like so many other employers across the nation who depend on customers for revenue, we were compelled to make these very difficult decisions."
The society's Board of Trustees and Women's Board had planned on hosting its largest fundraiser of the year, its annual "Whirl" gala on April 25. That event is being called a "Virtu-Whirl!" and the society is soliciting donations online through its website CZS.org/donate. An online auction that's part of the Whirl begins April 23 and closes April 25.
In another bid to maintain its revenue stream through the shutdown, Brookfield Zoo is asking its members to renew now and is asking those who aren't currently members to consider becoming one. Existing memberships are also being extended in recognition of the existing closure.
"CZS has a preparedness team that has been meeting daily and planning for some time in anticipation of the pandemic extending a number of months," the society's statement said.
Earlier this year, the Chicago Zoological Society outsourced its roughly 60 full-time and more than 300 seasonal food service and retail shop operations to a third-party vendor. Those employees are not among the ones affected by April 4 order, although they were impacted by the March 19 shutdown of the zoo.