Teachers and the Struggle for Paid Family Leave

By Rachel M. Cohen

A paid family leave rally in New York in March 2016. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Last fall, California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, signed a sweeping array of progressive legislation into law. Among the many bills he enacted included legislation granting collective bargaining rights to the state’s more than 40,000 childcare providers, making medication abortion available to all students at public colleges, and strengthening tenant protections. It was a dazzling list full of victories advocates had long fought for.

But one piece of progressive legislation that would have granted at least six weeks of paid maternity leave to California’s public school teachers didn’t make it over the finish line. The bill passed the state Legislature with bipartisan support, but faced stiff resistance from school districts and education associations, which urged the governor to veto what they saw as an expense too heavy to take on. Proponents argued the bill would save districts money on retention and recruitment, as fewer teachers might feel they need to quit the profession to balance their family duties, and more educators would be incentivized to take up teaching in the first place. 

In the end, Newsom sided with the school districts, as did his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed a similar bill in 2017. 

“Providing every California worker with paid family leave is a noble goal,” Newsom said at the time. “However, this bill will likely result in annual costs of tens of millions of dollars that should be considered as part of the annual budget process and as part of local collective bargaining.” He pointed to a state task force on paid family leave and said the benefit for educators should be considered within that effort. 

Educators like Evelyn Sanchez, an 8th-grade English language arts teacher in San Francisco, were heartbroken. “It’s really unfortunate that such a prosperous state treats its public employees so badly when it comes to family-friendly policies,” she said, recalling how hard it was to come back to school so quickly after giving birth, and wetting her pants in class because her pelvic floor was shot. 

“It’s really unfortunate that such a prosperous state treats its public employees so badly when it comes to family-friendly policies.”

Educator Evelyn Sanchez

More than three quarters of teachers are women, with most working during their prime childbearing years. For now, teachers in California, like teachers in the vast majority of school districts across the country, will continue on as they have for decades — either taking unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act or cobbling together vacation and sick days, or in some instances extended leave at a lesser salary. (In California, teachers who take extended leave even have to finance the cost of their own substitutes.) 

And teachers are certainly not alone in carrying this burden. The United States remains the only developed nation in the industrialized world that doesn’t provide federal paid family leave. Only nine states currently guarantee the benefit — and most of those, including California, exclude public sector workers like teachers. Within the private sector, just 19 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. 

While some teachers have recently increased their organizing for this overlooked issue — and there are victories to be found through state advocacy and local bargaining — many teachers are beginning to understand that true relief, not just for them but also for the families they serve — will only come through federal action. 

In some respects, it’s surprising the lack of paid leave for teachers has gone under the radar for so long, given how many educators it affects every year. On the other hand, it’s not surprising — given how few workers have the benefit at all and considering that teachers already have their hands full fighting school budget cuts, and rallying to preserve their dwindling healthcare benefits and retirement. Many teachers interviewed for this story added that the lack of attention to paid leave for teachers was just one more example of how the female-dominated profession has been, and remains, undervalued and disrespected. 

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The Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, was signed into law 27 years ago and provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents or individuals to care for a serious personal or family illness. This federal protection has been used more than 200 million times, and advocates describe it as a landmark step forward because it affirmed the idea that a family shouldn’t jeopardize one’s job or health insurance, that both men and women should be entitled to caregiving time, and that not only newborn or newly adopted children require care. 

But gaping holes in the law have loomed large, and lawmakers have failed to make any real progress toward addressing them. Aside from the fact that millions of workers can’t afford to take unpaid leave from their job, FMLA also applies only to those at companies of 50 employees or more who work on average at least 25 hours a week. If you work in a small business, if you work part time, or if you don’t have weeks of savings to lean on, you’re out of luck. 

In the meantime, some states, cities, and school districts have stepped up to tackle paid family leave — though that too has been frustratingly slow. 

The first four states to pass paid family leave were California (in 2002), New Jersey (in 2008), Rhode Island (in 2013), and New York (in 2016). All four had the advantage of adding the new benefit onto their existing temporary disability programs — something only five states in the country have. As a result, those states were able to incorporate paid family leave relatively easily into their state welfare systems. 

State policymakers then worked to improve upon the programs earlier states had created. For example, New York’s was the most comprehensive program to come at the time — up to three months of partially paid leave for all private sector employees, no matter their gender, the size of their workplace, or whether they are full time or part time. California and New Jersey, by contrast, offered just six weeks, and Rhode Island only four. (In 2019, New Jersey extended its benefit to 12 weeks.)

However, all four of those programs also excluded public sector workers in unions, like teachers.

“The big concern for lawmakers in those states was the fiscal note, meaning how much the program was expected to cost,” says Ellen Bravo, the strategic advisor of Family Values @ Work, a national network of organizations working to advance paid leave policies. Excluding public sector workers was a way to keep the effort’s sticker price down, making it politically easier to get through the legislative grinder.

In 2017, Washington became the first state to pass paid family leave that didn’t already have a temporary disability program, and notably their bill covered public sector employees too. Washington went further than New York, offering 12 weeks of paid leave, and up to 16 when family and medical leave are used together. 

Massachusetts followed suit in 2018, and Oregon and Connecticut joined in 2019. The most recent states also created what’s known as a progressive wage replacement, so the people who earn the least are entitled to a greater percentage of their lost wages.

Bravo says Washington and Oregon were really the first states to pass paid family leave framed as a universal principle — and in both states teachers were involved in helping to push that forward.

In 2016, months before New York passed its own statewide law, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earned praise for signing an executive order extending six weeks of paid parental leave to the city’s 20,000 non-union employees. 

But public school teachers — who are unionized — were ineligible.

In response, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), the social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, launched a campaign that began with a petition for paid parental leave and breast pumps and later included rallies, walk-ins, and other actions.

Teachers outside the caucus also began organizing for paid leave. Emily James, a teacher and mother of two, was so frustrated that one day she decided to start her own online petition — which unexpectedly went viral, garnering more than 80,000 signatures. She wrote about her own experience having children, and recounted going to a maternity workshop in 2012 after getting pregnant to better understand her benefit options. “It began as a room full of bubbly, pregnant women, and ended with many of us in tears,” she wrote. 

Feeling the urgency, Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, pressured City Hall and by June 2018 the mayor announced a deal had been reached. The union’s 120,000 members would now be eligible to take six weeks of paid leave to care for a new child. The cost was covered by extending the union’s contract a bit longer, and it was estimated that 4,000 educators would take the benefit each year. Teachers could also combine that new benefit with their accrued sick days.

Rank-and-file union members have also put pressure on their national teacher unions to step up. In 2017, at the National Education Association’s annual convention, delegates introduced a resolution calling on their union to draft paid parental leave contract language that locals could use during bargaining. The resolution passed, and an NEA spokesperson shared the sample contract language, which states that teachers “shall have the right” to take paid parental leave, and that the employer shall not discriminate against any employee who does. The language also clarifies that an employee who returns to work would be reinstated with “accumulated seniority, retirement, benefits, and uninterrupted employment credit.”

The most generous paid leave policy for teachers right now can be found in Delaware, where in the spring of 2019 Democratic Gov. John Carney signed a bill extending 12 weeks of paid parental leave to all state workers, including teachers. If both parents are public employees, they can take the benefit concurrently, or each take 12 weeks separately.

“We are really excited and eternally grateful to the governor for signing this,” says Kristin Dwyer, director of legislation for the Delaware State Education Association. Prior to this, Delaware educators had to either use their sick days or go on short-term disability, meaning they would have to take a pay cut. 

Dwyer acknowledges it wasn’t an easy push in the state Legislature to get approval. “A lot of legislators believed that educators should just be able to time their pregnancies to have kids in June, and I had to enlighten them that bodies don’t always work that way,” she says. “You also had some legislators who believed that fathers shouldn’t have access to this benefit, that it was a mother’s duty.” Some lawmakers even worried providing the benefit could lead to a “baby boom.” 

“A lot of legislators believed that educators should just be able to time their pregnancies to have kids in June, and I had to enlighten them that bodies don’t always work that way.”

Kristin Dwyer, director of legislation for the delaware state education association

Ultimately, Dwyer said, having teachers testify about their personal experience moved reluctant lawmakers to vote for its passage. “Our members showed up and said at the most expensive point in my life I’m expected to take a pay cut, at the point in my life where another individual needs me the most and I cannot leave their side, I’m expected to leave their side, and at a point where I need some time to recover mentally and physically, I’m expected not to do that.”

Like in California, leaders of Delaware school districts argued they wouldn’t be able to afford this new cost, and insisted they lacked a viable substitute pool to support the policy. In response to these concerns, the state volunteered to shoulder the per diem cost of substitutes when needed for paid parental leave. 

Dwyer expects the benefit to be a boon to Delaware, bringing educators in and helping to retain them. She says they’ve already seen anecdotal evidence for this. At a new-hire orientation a few months after the bill’s passage, she met teachers who said they just moved over from Maryland specifically for this reason. 

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While these victories in states, cities, and school districts represent important political milestones for the paid leave movement and offer strong examples of success for opponents who claim paid leave will be devastating for businesses and local economies, advocates are under no illusion that all states would ever pass their own programs. 

In 2018, 32-year-old Kathy Hoffman was elected Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, a statewide position that oversees Arizona’s public school system and its state Education Department. Hoffman entered politics after working as a speech language pathologist in Arizona public schools for five years. She says Betsy DeVos’ notorious Senate confirmation hearing was what motivated her to run for office. While campaigning throughout the state, as the #RedForEd movement picked up steam, Hoffman worked to elevate how unpaid parental leave was hurting Arizona’s teachers.

“The issue resonated very strongly when I brought it up, and something I saw was that most voters were completely shocked when I told them teachers don’t get paid parental leave,” she said.

In 2019, a bill was introduced in the Arizona Legislature by a freshman Democratic representative to provide six weeks of paid leave for state employees, including teachers. Hoffman supported the legislation, but it died in committee. 

“Arizona still has a Republican-controlled Legislature so it’s very hard to have Democratic bills heard and move forward,” Hoffman said. 

Bravo says that’s why Family Values @ Work, composed of activists across 27 states, helped launch a campaign with dozens of other national partners to push for a federal fix. 

Their goal is the passage of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY Act), introduced by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, which would provide up to 12 weeks of partially paid leave for qualifying workers to care for a new child or for a serious personal or family health condition. The bill, though imperfect as it could exclude 30 percent of new parents, represents a major step forward by covering 150 million people annually. It has 34 Senate co-sponsors, 205 House co-sponsors, and it would be paid for by modest contributions from employers and employees, managed by the Social Security Administration. 

“The minute it becomes something that affects everyone,” she said, “it’s a whole different story politically.”

To get the bill passed, and improved, activists are using similar tactics they deployed on the state level, including allying with labor unions. The National Education Association, for example, is part of the national coalition organizing under the banner of Paid Leave for All.

Yet despite the fact that paid family leave has strong bipartisan support among the American public, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other powerful groups have been working to prevent Congress from taking action.

Corporate lobbyists have spent decades spreading fear that mandates for paid leave will cripple businesses and hurt the economy. Back in the 1990s when federal lawmakers were considering the FMLA, one representative warned that “tens of thousands of working men and women will be put out of work” if the bill passed. But their arguments have been proven weaker and weaker as the years stretch on, as more states pass programs and the sky has decidedly not fallen. 

Bravo says the push for paid family and medical leave that is gender-neutral and universal ensures greater success than campaigns limited to new child leave, which not everyone will need. Nearly everyone, though, will have family members they are called on to care for at some point or another, or will develop their own serious illness. 

“The minute it becomes something that affects everyone,” she said, “it’s a whole different story politically.”

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Rachel Cohen is a freelance journalist. Sign up for her newsletter at rmcohen.substack.com and visit her website at rmcohen.com.