Existing Parental Leave Policies Disadvantage Teachers

7 mins read

“Our society doesn’t do a lot to support women in motherhood,” Physics teacher Kari Brown said. “Sometimes I wish that we could unionize or protest at the lack of support we’re given as new mothers, but in order to do that we have to be willing to refuse to do the work. And refusing to do the work means that you’re sacrificing your children and most mothers are not willing to make that sacrifice. Our society knows that, so they’re just like, ‘Nope, you have to figure it out.’”

Leave Logistics

For students, “maternity leave” is a sudden absence at the head of their class, but for teachers, it can mean a long and complicated process of planning:

For teachers in our district, all of this leave only applies to contract hours, so summer break and holidays do not count. If a teacher starts their leave in April and they use up their sick days, Disability Leave, and two weeks of CFRA, when the next school year starts they still have 10 weeks of leave under CFRA. This is not the case in all districts. 

Because of this, teachers try to plan their pregnancy so that their baby arrives late second semester or early summer in order to maximize their leave. Spanish teacher Maribel Maldonado said, “You have to plan your baby a year in advance.”

Still On the Job

Teachers have a uniquely difficult time stepping away from their jobs, as they leave behind a classroom full of students. 

Maldonado said, “When you leave, you have to take into consideration that there’s going to be a long-term sub. You’re not required to, but you are encouraged to leave sub-plans. For me, the biggest stress was worrying about my students while I was gone.”

Science and AVID teacher Erica Shepard said, “I put in a lot of extra unpaid time outside of school so that my classes would still have engaging lessons and activities while I was gone.”

Biology teacher Mark Helfenberger, who went on paternity leave, said, “As a teacher, the leave is such that I cannot fully forget about my job or my students. I was still planning lessons and grading students’ work all six weeks I was away.”

M-A’s current substitute shortage exacerbates this problem; it’s often difficult to find qualified long-term substitutes because of the affordable housing shortage in the Bay Area. This results in a rotation of short-term substitutes who may not be proficient in the subject they’re teaching, forcing teachers to stay tethered to their classrooms. 

Brown said,  “Our society tries to make the person on maternity leave responsible for all the learning. In other jobs, when you take leave someone actually subs in and takes over those responsibilities. Whereas here, even with a substitute, it seems like I’m still responsible for the learning.”

The Sick-Day Policy

Both the birthing parent and the non-birthing parent must use up all of their sick days before using any other type of leave.

This means that upon returning to work, teachers have little to no sick days at their disposal, even with a young child at home.

Shepard said, “I had to use up all my sick days right at the start of my leave. I would have preferred to save some of them for when I return to work and my little one starts at daycare because it’s very likely that she will get sick a lot in the beginning.”

Edith Salvatore, the Sequoia District Teacher’s Association president and bargaining chair, said, “I think the hardest thing about parental leave is that, depending on when your baby is born, you come back to work and you’ve used all your leave. If your baby was born in the fall, you come back for six months of work with a baby who may need to go to the doctor or may be sick, or you may be sick, and you don’t have any leave left because you used it all. It’s not realistic for the way families work.”

Our district does grant teachers 10 additional personal necessity days. These are 10 days of paid leave teachers can take each year without providing a reason to the district. These days do not, however, carry over every year, as sick days do.

The Motherhood Penalty

Our current system disadvantages both parents by making it difficult for the non-childbearing parent to support their child and their partner at the beginning of their child’s life. Under the district’s leave policies, it is much harder for the non-birthing parent to take extended leave off with their new child, placing the responsibility on the birthing parent. According to the American Association of University Women, “Though childbearing has economic benefits for our society, women are financially penalized for having children. A study by Census Bureau researchers found that between two years before the birth of a couple’s first child and a year after, the earnings gap between opposite-sex spouses doubles. The gap continues to grow until that child reaches age 10. Though it narrows after that, it never disappears completely. This is referred to as the ‘Motherhood Penalty.’”

A Vox article elaborates on this; being assigned the role of primary caregiver by default stunts women’s career growth —and therefore their increase in salary. The state’s parental leave policies make it harder for men to take on the role of a primary caregiver. The only paid leave that non-birthing parents receive is their sick days. After they’ve run out, they then only receive 12 weeks of leave with differential pay. This only reinforces that societal norm, as it makes more financial sense for the non-childbearing parent to return to work.

Further, many fathers would like to take more time off to spend with their new child, however, their lack of paid leave discourages them from doing so. It is not only unfair to women to assign them as the primary caregiver by default, but also unfair to their partners because it prevents them from having the opportunity to bond with their child or take on a caregiving role.

Helfenberger said, “I only took off six of the twelve weeks offered under FMLA, and used all my sick time to do so. I couldn’t take the time off otherwise, as paying for the sub from my salary is more than I can afford.”

The U.S.’s lack of paternity leave makes it unique amongst other wealthier countries: Countries like Canada have changed their system of parental leave to encourage fathers to take a more active role in their young child’s life. Canada’s system gives a certain amount of leave to the child-bearing parent, but also includes an extended period of paid leave time that can be shared amongst the parents. Further, they offer five weeks of paid parental leave—called “daddy days,”—that are specifically for the non-childbearing parent.

Germany also has a robust maternity leave and parental leave system that requires childbearing parents to take 6 to 12 weeks of paid parental leave without having to pay into Disability Insurance. Unpaid parental leave extends for three years, it is shared between both parents, and both parents’ jobs are protected. Further, parents can apply for parental allowance during this unpaid time to compensate for their loss of salary.

The sick-day policy is especially effective in expanding the gender wealth gap; Salvatore explained, “When male teachers retire, they are at a financial advantage over a female teacher who had multiple children because the sick days count towards service credit for retirement. If you retire with 150 sick days it’s like you worked almost another full year in terms of what you can earn in retirement. Because we force women to use those days when they are recovering from pregnancy or during that baby bonding time, they are retiring with less financial advantage.”

Post-Leave Conditions

Under CFRA—which, at 12 weeks, is the largest portion of available leave—teachers only receive differential pay. This pay is unsustainable for most teachers, and for new teachers with lower salaries, it amounts to virtually no financial support. Because of this, many teachers must come back before the end of their 12-week period.

Returning to work sooner—or even after the longest period of leave possible—puts a strain on mothers who are breastfeeding.

Brown said, “California passed laws that say that you have a right to pump at work. But, state law is written in such a way that your employers don’t have to give you additional breaks to pump, so your employer can ask you to pump during your already established breaks. This means as a teacher you lose a ton of prep time because you’re not spending your prep time prepping, you’re spending your prep time pumping milk. It means you don’t have lunch because you spend lunch pumping. So you can only squeeze in two pumping sessions a day in the workday when you really need three or four to maintain your supply. It feels like every minute of every day you’re kind of burning the candle at both ends.”

Moving Forward

Teachers wished to see an increase in the amount of time allowed off and wanted to receive paid leave without having to sacrifice their sick days. 

Interviewed teachers advised other teachers going through this experience in the future to register for Disability Insurance early on, do research before talking to HR about leave time, and, above all, have a spring baby.

As Helfenberger explained, “[The flaws in our parental leave system are] not a failing of the school but of the state and federal laws. Admin and fellow M-A teachers have gone above and beyond what they are required to do to make my time off as enjoyable as possible.” The flaws in our teachers’ parental leave system—teachers feeling the need to do their job while on leave, needing to use up all their sick days during their leave, and a discrepancy between maternity and paternity leave that disadvantages both partners—are issues that reach far beyond the M-A community. 

All teachers interviewed expressed gratitude for M-A’s supportive community and staff. Moreover, California has some of the best parental leave options in the country, and our school district supports its teachers much more than others. 

Many consider having children to be one of the most— if not the most— rewarding experiences of their life. However, the current economic condition along with the Motherhood Penalty is discouraging people from wanting to have children.  Studies show that people are already having fewer children. 

Brown said, “When you come back at four months—because you have to, in order to get paid—you also now have to start paying for childcare, and childcare for infants in this area tends to range from $1800–$2500 a month, which is like another rent payment. When I had one child and paid for childcare, I was spending $22,000 a year.” 

There is a possibility for improving conditions. The SDTA is currently bargaining for six weeks of guaranteed paid leave from the district. Salvatore said, “What we’re asking for is for it just to be an expected cost of business that the district is going to have pregnant employees who are going to go on leave, and the district should pay for six weeks of leave for them and that leave should not come off of our sick leave. Teachers could use this leave at any point because of the pregnancy when they are unable to work.”

This is Sarah's third year in journalism. She loves writing in-depth pieces about problems in our community, school, or society and advocating for various solutions. Outside of journalism she enjoys reading, baking, spending time in the outdoors, and playing with her dog.

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