Teachers spend their days taking care of other people’s children. But what happens when they have babies of their own?
Unlike other developed nations, the United States does not mandate paid parental leave. And the K-12 education sector is no exception, despite being dominated by women in their childbearing years. Just a handful of states, including Washington state and New Jersey, as well as the District of Columbia, provide paid parental leave for teachers. And some individual school districts offer it, too.
But for the most part, teachers have to cobble together sick days to have some paid time off with their newborns, and then supplement that with unpaid leave. In a profession that has increasingly been under fire for low wages, it’s another source of frustration for educators, many of whom say they have to return to the classroom before they feel ready.
“It’s not just the fact that you have a baby, it’s the fact that you’re healing physically and possibly dealing with things emotionally and mentally as well,” said Marianna Ruggerio, a high school physics teacher in Rockford, Ill., who is expecting her second child in early April. “I think there’s a lack of recognition of how intense and difficult that can be.”
Yet there are signs that paid family leave policies for teachers have increasingly been on the radars of policymakers, who see this as a recruitment and retention tool. There are ongoing efforts in Arizona and California to implement paid parental leave policies for teachers. Last year, Delaware Gov. John Carney signed into law a bill that gives state workers, including educators, 12 weeks of paid parental leave. And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year that teachers will be eligible for six weeks of paid parental leave.
Even some of the labor actions this year have taken up the cause: Teachers from the Chicago International Charter Schools network went on strike earlier this year and won benefits that included one week of paid parental leave.
While these efforts have been largely driven by state and local teachers’ unions, the National Education Association has drafted sample contract language for paid family leave policies that its affiliates can use during bargaining. (That action stemmed from a resolution NEA delegates introduced and voted for during their 2017 convention.)
These policy pushes reflect an ongoing broader national conversation. As of now, most teachers and other employees can take unpaid, job-protected leave for 12 weeks under the Family Medical Leave Act. But paid parental leave is widely popular among Americans, and private-sector companies have been increasingly offering these policies. President Donald Trump has said he wants to start a federal paid parental leave policy, though his recent budget proposal offered few details.
This year, lawmakers in Congress have introduced multiple proposals that would enact some form of paid parental leave. For example, a Democrat-backed bill would grant 12 weeks of paid family leave to all workers, while a Republican-sponsored measure would allow workers to fund parental leave with their Social Security benefits.
A ‘Pay Cut to Have a Child’
Meanwhile, educators say that relying on sick days to make up parental leave is stressful. Doing so makes it difficult to take time off before the baby is born, including for doctor’s appointments required with pregnancy. “Then when you’re actually sick, you don’t want to take off because of all of the time away already planned,” said Ruggerio, who will take eight weeks off, with just five of those weeks paid through banked sick days. “Each additional sick day is one less paid day during maternity leave.”
On average, public school teachers receive about 12 days of sick and personal leave per year. They do receive vacation time throughout the year when schools are closed, but that’s often not helpful when childbearing can be so unpredictable.
For early-career teachers who don’t have many sick days banked—or who don’t yet qualify for the FMLA, often because they haven’t been working at their job for a year—taking time off for the birth or adoption of a child can be even more difficult.
Ruggerio said when she had her first child, it was only her second year working in the school district, so she had few sick days saved. In order to make ends meet during a largely unpaid maternity leave, she did online tutoring sessions to prepare students for the ACT college-admissions test. The day she brought her newborn son home from the hospital, she did a two-hour call with a student.
When Maggie Perkins, a 6th grade teacher in Smyrna, Ga., had her first daughter last year, she was new to the district and didn’t qualify for FMLA. She had to purchase her own short-term disability policy instead. Then, her summer paychecks were prorated because she hadn’t worked the full school year.
“It ended up being a 30 percent pay cut to have a child,” she said.
In March, Perkins gave birth to her second daughter. While she qualified for FMLA this time, she had no sick days saved up and couldn’t afford to lose that many paychecks. She took just 16 school days off.
“I’m frustrated because I know I’m going to have to leave a newborn. ... It’s too soon to be separated,” Perkins said, her voice thick with emotion. “I don’t want to not teach anymore, but I also want to be a mother and have my family as well.”
“There’s the sense that you’re supposed to be heroic about it,” she added. “When do teachers get to be humans?”
Benefits of Paid Family Leave
Research has shown that access to paid family leave can lead to improved health outcomes for children, lower rates of postpartum depression, and more and longer breastfeeding. (Teachers in particular struggle finding the dedicated space and time to pump breast milk at work.)
And Maya Rossin-Slater, an assistant professor in the department of health research and policy at Stanford University, said her research on paid parental leave policies in California shows there is no detrimental effect on women’s career trajectories. Instead, the policies lead to small or neutral effects on women’s retention in the workforce.
“It’s important to remember that it’s not a panacea,” she said. “There’s evidence suggesting that paid family leave improves infant health, it improves maternal health and well-being, it reduces stress—all of these things that are extremely important, and I think on their own suggest the case for paid leave.”
Even so, advocates for paid family leave policies for teachers say that they could still be a recruitment and retention tool. About 77 percent of teachers are female, and many of them are in their prime childbearing years. (The average age of teachers is 42.) Among the teachers who leave the profession voluntarily, nearly a quarter say it’s because of personal life reasons, which include pregnancy and child care, according to the most recent federal data.
“If [young people] are thinking, ‘I want to start a family, and I want to work with kids,’ we really want teaching to be the top choice,” said Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s state superintendent of public instruction, in an interview. “And it’s about reducing barriers to keeping teachers. ... We want to make sure something like having a child is not a huge obstacle to remaining in the classroom.”
Hoffman, a former teacher, was elected to office last fall on a platform that included statewide paid parental leave. She said she had heard so many stories from her colleagues about the challenges of having a baby while working—ranging from planning childbirth for the summer months to going into significant debt after taking unpaid leave.
“Especially for our educators, where it’s a family-centric, kids-centric career, where we have so many teachers and educators who are parents, we should be doing everything we can to support mothers and their young children,” she said.
Fighting for Paid Time Off
Hoffman is advocating for 12 weeks of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and plans to prioritize this effort next legislative session. She said she will build a coalition around the issue with administrators, health-care professionals, insurance providers, and hopefully someone from the governor’s office.
Meanwhile, in California, lawmakers are planning to push for paid parental leave for teachers once again. The state already gives many workers up to six weeks of partial pay to care for a new child or sick relative, but public school teachers are ineligible for the benefit.
In 2017, a bill that would have required school districts, charter schools, and community colleges to pay for at least six weeks of leave for pregnancy, childbirth, or miscarriage passed both chambers of the state legislature. But it was vetoed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, who said teacher leave policies should be decided through the collective-bargaining process at the local level.
Now, state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the bill’s author, has introduced the measure again this year, in hopes that newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom will be more receptive to it. Newsom has already proposed extending paid parental leave in the state to six months, although a spokesman for the governor said leave policies would have to be negotiated between districts and their employees.
“School districts are not just willfully doing this,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes you have to ensure it gets done through state law.”
Still, the last time this bill was up for consideration, districts said they couldn’t afford the costs associated with offering paid leave. Gonzalez countered that the policy could be a cost-saver for districts in the long run if it helps with retention, since it’s expensive for districts to replace teachers year after year.
In New York, change happened through a groundswell of teacher activism, said John Troutman McCrann, a math teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in the city who is the leader of his school’s union chapter.
A teacher had started a Change.org petition to fight for paid parental leave that gathered nearly 85,000 signatures. That inspired the United Federation of Teachers president to convene a task force of educators (including McCrann), lawyers, and negotiators who ultimately struck an agreement with the city.
“It was just crazy to me, that in a sector of the economy that is supposed to be about caring for children, we would not have any means for someone who wanted to spend time bonding with her new little one,” McCrann said.
A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Teachers Often Back in Class Too Soon After Childbirth