The issue was brought to light after an elementary school teacher with cancer had to pay $200 a day for a substitute
When a second grade teacher in San Francisco’s public school system was diagnosed with breast cancer, she quickly ran through her ten allotted sick days while undergoing treatment. And because of a 40-year-old California state law, she’s paying for the substitute teacher who’s helming her class during each day of her extended sick leave. Specifically, while the teacher, who has asked to stay anonymous, fights for her life, she’s also losing $195 a day, straight from her paycheck.
Now that the beloved teacher’s story has hit the news, parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians are trying to understand why these laws exist and trying to take steps to get them dismantled if possible.
The history of the law goes back to the mid-1970s, when the rule was added to the state education code: instead of paying into a state disability program like most other workers, their pay is docked when they face an extended leave. At the time, it was considered good that teachers could retain partial pay even when sick with a long-term illness, and good that they couldn’t be fired for being sick. Today, though, it seems most people agree it’s time to update it to a system that works a lot better.
“I’m sorry we don’t have a better system in place,” state Senator Connie Leyva said in a recent interview. “We couldn’t help you, but we’re going to try and fix it for future teachers.”
She’s been working with the California Teachers Association (CTA) to discuss solutions. Until now, teachers have had a bank of donated sick days that they could give to each other, but the teacher in question never joined the “catastrophic sick bank pool” and can’t access the days on a technicality.
“Some of our advocates in Sacramento are talking with both the governor’s office and with Connie Leyva and others who have expressed interest as this continues to go viral,” Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, told NPR. “There’s a lot of discussion about it and outrage and … you can say rightfully so.”
“I just can’t believe how grossly unfair it is,” parent Amanda Kahn Fried told KQED News. “Can you imagine telling doctors they have to pay for their replacements? It just doesn’t make sense. That’s not the employee’s responsibility — that’s the employer’s responsibility.”
But there are complications: changing the rules will be expensive, and public education budgets are tighter than ever. Just months ago, 30,000 California teachers went on strike in L.A.
It’s far from the first time that a teacher has been affected. Another teacher, at Sheridan Elementary School in San Francisco, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, the year after having a baby and buying a house with her husband. Suddenly, the teacher, Heather Burns, went from a secure life to being sick with a young child, a mortgage, and a fraction of her paycheck.
“It’s absolutely outrageous and leaves you in a state of desperation when your cancer diagnosis already has taken your hope away,” she told NPR. “I’m sick. I just had surgery. I’ve just gotten diagnosed with breast cancer. My world is falling apart and they just send me my paycheck. And I literally had to figure out with my husband how we were gonna make things work, get my treatment over the summer, and go back to work so I didn’t have to pay for a sub.”
She went back to work before her doctor advised her to, just to pay the bills.
In the more recent case, the teacher has a GoFundMe account to help her family survive – an all too familiar tool that so many are using as they navigate our flawed health care system and poor worker leave programs.
“She is an impeccable teacher who has taught at Glen Park School for 17 years,” the page explains. “Technically, she stands out as a true professional who is dedicated to her craft. She approaches each student as an individual in order to help them maximize their progress in their academic endeavors. Her dedication and love for her students can’t be understated. Just a few days after her surgery, she took the time to write out 22 completely personalized notes to the students in the class thanking them for their support, telling them she missed them dearly and encouraging them to continue working hard.”
Hopefully, the laws will change. But likely not in time to help this teacher – despite her 17 years of dedication to the school and kids, she’ll have to rely on donated funds to get through this hard time.