Originally published in the Daily Herald, August 31, 2020.

As Metra strives to recapture riders wary of commuting during a pandemic, the railroad faces COVID-19 fallout on other fronts -- no money, picketing workers, Illinois Senate scrutiny and balking conductors on Union Pacific lines.

Members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance Workers Employee Division of the Teamsters brought their work safety grievances to Metra directors' homes this summer. It resulted in one encounter where union officials say they were threatened with a firearm, although police dispute those claims. The employees, who fix tracks, structures and stations, want Metra to offer COVID-19 testing and regular temperature checks. Thirty union members have tested positive for COVID-19 and one worker died of the virus, Metra confirms. Even with masks, workers are anxious about close conditions, such as driving four to a truck en route to jobs, Teamsters representative Nick Manojlovic said.

"No one wants to go to work and bring that (virus) home to our families," Manojlovic said.

The union and Metra are currently negotiating a contract. Things got messy at Director Ken Koehler's house in Crystal Lake Aug. 6, when a crowd of Teamsters materialized with signs and a bullhorn. According to Manojlovic, Koehler at one point intimidated protesters by displaying a pistol and saying, "I'm armed."

But "that is absolutely not true," countered Koehler, who has a concealed carry license. His firearm "never left the holster," he said. "I did not display it, I did not try to agitate anyone."

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Category: In The News

Originally published in The Southern Illinoisan, August 13, 2020.

SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois Senate committee met for the state’s first-ever virtual hearing Thursday in a Zoom teleconference focusing on diversity in state contracts granted through the Illinois Tollway.

The new Senate rules for virtual hearings were approved by the chamber in the abbreviated May legislative session. They allow the Senate president, in consultation with the minority leader, to create a process in which committee votes can be taken, but such a process has not yet been approved.

Thursday’s Senate Transportation Committee hearing — which state Sen. Ram Villivalam, D-Chicago, called to order shortly before 10 a.m. — was subject matter only, meaning there could be discussion, but no votes would be taken.

The committee was previously chaired by state Sen. Martin Sandoval, a Chicago Democrat who resigned his senate seat last year before admitting in a January plea deal that he had received more than $250,000 in bribes from a red light camera company over a three-year period.

Sandoval was also one of the lead architects of the capital infrastructure package passed in 2019, which created a revenue stream for road and bridge projects by raising the gas tax and other transportation-related fees. The revenue that legislation produced funds the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois capital improvements plan.

Villivalam said the purpose of committee hearings like the one called Thursday was to increase transparency in state contracts.

“Given the fact that we're in the midst of a pandemic, civil unrest and an economic downturn, I would argue now more than ever we must be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, and we must ensure the safety of our residents,” Villivalam said. “With that in mind, my goal today and those of this committee are to listen and ask meaningful questions of all involved and figure out the best path forward on transparency and diversity goals at the Illinois Tollway.”

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Category: In The News

Originally published in Journal & Topics, August 10, 2020. 

In response to the recent rise in positive COVID-19 cases, State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-8th) is urging residents to take advantage of a new temporary testing site set up at the Bernard Horwich JCC, 3003 W. Touhy Ave., Chicago.

“Due to the increasing positivity rate in Chicago, we need to continue our strong testing and contact tracing operations to stay ahead of the virus and prevent a big outbreak,” Villivalam said. “Not only is this temporary testing site a way to make it easier than ever to get a fast, easy and free test, but it’s also key to being able to safely reopen our state and economy. Testing and contact tracing are vital to being able to put people back to work without compromising their health or that of their coworkers.”

Testing will be available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 10 through Sunday, Aug. 16. Simple nasal swabs will be used, and both drive-thru and walk-up testing are available. Anyone can get tested regardless of whether they exhibit symptoms. The tests are free, and the results will be available within four to seven business days. Residents should bring their insurance card but can still get a test without insurance.

“Part of why this virus is so dangerous is the asymptomatic cases that spread silently through communities,” Villivalam said. “Most asymptomatic cases won’t know they have the virus unless they get tested. This site will allow anyone who may be worried about upcoming travel, visiting family, going to work or caring for children to get a test to make sure they don’t have COVID-19 and hopefully bring them a little peace of mind.”

Category: In The News

Originally published in News India Times, January 7, 2020. 

Illinois State Senator Ram Villivalam (D-Chicago), who represents the 8th District, has been appointed Chair of the Special Committee on Supplier Diversity in the Illinois Senate.

Villivalam is the first Indian-American elected to the Illinois General Assembly, and first Asian-American elected to the Illinois State Senate.

In his new appointment, Villivalam will work with members of the committee, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration, and stakeholders to evaluate and propose solutions to improve the diversity of the transportation and infrastructure work that is done in the state of Illinois, a Jan. 3, 2020 press release from the Indian-American State Senator’s office said.

The Special Committee on Supplier Diversity is primarily responsible for overseeing public and private sector organizations and ensuring that they offer diverse opportunities to small businesses and job growth for minority, women, and veteran-owned businesses.

“I look forward to expanding opportunities for women, minority, and veteran owned businesses around the state,” Villivalam said in a statement. “Supplier diversity is an issue I’ve been working on in the legislature and in my district. My work will prioritize equity while strengthening our economy, two critically important jobs of our state government,” he added.

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Category: In The News

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