In a recent binding opinion, the Public Access Counselor determined that a city properly denied a FOIA request for personal information of certain employees covered by a particular collective bargaining agreement, including information about which employees were in a particular bargaining unit, because such disclosure is prohibited under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (“IPLRA”) (5 ILCS 315/1 et seq.) and is therefore exempt under FOIA Section 7.5(zz).
A city received a FOIA request for certain personal information, such as the name, position, work address, work email, and “union,” for all employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement with a particular union. The city denied the request, citing FOIA Section 7.5(zz), which exempts from disclosure “information prohibited from being disclosed under the [IPLRA].” The IPLRA, in turn, prohibits a public employer from disclosing certain employee information, including any information that would personally identify an employee’s membership or status in a labor organization. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act (“IELRA”), which applies to school districts and other educational employers, contains confidentiality language mirroring the IPLRA in this regard. This confidentiality language was added to both statutes in 2019 as part of legislation following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME ruling.
The requester argued that she was not seeking prohibited information, but instead was requesting information about which employees are in a particular bargaining unit. Upon review, the PAC found that confirming that certain specific employees are within a bargaining unit would necessarily reveal the identity of the organization and information concerning employee membership or membership status. Noting that the legislative intent of the 2019 revisions to the IPLRA was to insulate employees from inquiries regarding their union membership or status, the PAC reasoned that allowing the disclosure of the information requested would “defeat the purpose” of this legislation, as compliance would require the city to identify whether or not each employee is a member of that union. As a result, the city properly denied the FOIA request.
This opinion is noteworthy because it is the PAC’s first binding opinion interpreting the confidentiality provisions of the IPLRA and IELRA. Based on this opinion, it is clear that the PAC is taking a broad interpretation of these confidentiality provisions, with an emphasis on maintaining employee privacy with respect to union membership. Be sure to review FOIA request language carefully and keep this exception in mind when responding to FOIA requests for information about employees.
- Public Access Opinion 22-009