Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
At the end of Daritza Coronel’s first year as a teacher with San Antonio Independent School District, she found out she was pregnant with her second child. When she contacted her district’s HR department, Coronel learned that her maternity leave would be unpaid.
Local school districts, and the majority of districts nationwide, don’t provide paid maternity leave for teachers or district employees, despite education being a profession dominated by women. Statewide, more than 76 percent of teachers are women.
Texas educators tend to rely on provided sick or personal leave days – each year they get five from the state and five from their district – and then use short-term disability plans to supplement some of their salary, or take unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Coronel opted to enroll in a short-term disability plan but later discovered she had chosen one that wouldn’t provide her compensation in the time window needed. After paying in, she received none of the benefits. She ended up draining her remaining personal leave days and relying on FMLA, which ensures job protection for 12 weeks for employees who have worked at least 1,250 hours with an employer.
“I didn’t get paid during my time off, but I did have to pay my insurance, which was expensive for my family,” Coronel said. “I actually had to take out a loan to cover some of the costs during my leave.”
Coronel’s story is familiar for many other San Antonio teachers and district personnel who must navigate a challenging benefits program while trying to build a family.
Some teachers try to plan in advance to have children at the beginning of the summer, and take the time before the school year starts to recover from giving birth. That’s easier to plan than actually execute, though, Northside ISD teacher Laura San Roman said.
San Roman had her eldest son, Miguel, in June 2017, but gave birth to her second son, Rafael, just three months ago.
“Having a summer baby is ideal because you still get paid, and you don’t have to worry about anything else,” San Roman said. “It is a hard thing to orchestrate. I wish I could say yes, that is what we planned [for Miguel]. But I just kind of lucked out with that.”
With Rafael, San Roman had to plan much further in advance to ensure she and her family were financially sound enough to miss out on her regular income. She saved up her days and put money into a short-term disability plan. Ultimately, San Roman received one paycheck for the six weeks she was at home with her sons.
“The other month-and-a-half that I got by was because my husband and I saved up money and we were okay for bills,” San Roman said.
Planning for future benefits
At a mid-May budget workshop, San Antonio ISD trustees were adding to their wish list of items they would like to see considered for future years. Trustee Steve Lecholop introduced a topic that brought appreciative snaps from several of his female colleagues: paid maternity leave.
Lecholop told the room full of district staff and trustees that SAISD should be a leader in the area nationally and explore what it would take to offer such a benefit. He asked Toni Thompson, SAISD’s associate superintendent of human resources, to explore the matter.
About a third of U.S. employers provide paid maternity leave beyond what is required by law, according to 2018 data from the Society for Human Resource Management. This number has increased in recent years, but in the education landscape, only a small number of districts have started discussing adding such a benefit.
In June 2018, New York City announced it would provide paid family leave to teachers as part of a deal made with the United Federation of Teachers. The agreement provides full salary to birth, foster, adoptive, and surrogate parents for up to six weeks. Initial estimates put 4,000 parents as benefitting annually, with a projected cost at $51 million, according to a Chalkbeat report.
The cost is the largest obstacle to offering such a benefit, several HR administrators told the Rivard Report.
“If you are talking about teachers who are out, we are paying to cover them, but that’s going to be a whole lot more than a food service cook,” Thompson said. “It is not something that districts have really entertained, but we will start working on some dollar figures.”
There are a lot of uncertainties when a business or entity sets out to offer paid parental leave, but even more when a school district takes on the endeavor. There are the usual questions about how many weeks to offer and whether to extend the leave to fathers or secondary caregivers. But there are also questions about how districts pay for a substitute teacher or if the district should also provide leave to a teacher who has a baby during summer months.
Ultimately, Thompson said, school districts are state-funded, which ends up mandating a lot of the district’s ability to offer programs like paid maternity leave. If the state were to provide funding for such a program, it would be a lot easier, she added.
It has come up in discussion among some state lawmakers, San Antonio Democrat Diego Bernal said. However, there has never been a wide-spread discussion in the Texas capitol, he added.
In an interview with the Rivard Report, Lecholop described the specific challenges districts face on this front.
School districts are not profit centers, he said, and each public school system is using a limited amount of tax dollars for the benefit of children. For this reason, school districts must adopt a different mindset from a law firm, or typical industry, or even normal governmental entity.
“It almost sets up a binary choice between the education of kids and an adult benefit,” Lecholop said. “If the answer is we don’t have the money … then how do we create a runway? How do we plan for this going forward especially as the state changes its financial formulas?
“The point is to not force our teachers into an untenable situation where they have to decide between a baby and a job. It is a fairness thing, especially to women. It is an equity thing and truly it is just the right thing to do.”
Noting that he isn’t looking to create a carte blanche system where everyone would qualify for leave, no questions asked, Lecholop said he wants to explore how to create a benefit that would take into account a school district’s unique financial limitations.
In the months between legislative sessions in Austin, Bernal visits each campus included in his House District to get a real picture of what students and teachers face locally. During these visits, Bernal has heard that a lot of young teachers consider leaving the profession to start a family.
“I’m curious as to how much [the lack of paid maternity leave] plays a role in that, or, on the flip side, if there was paid parental leave, would that have a positive effect on teacher turnover, retention, and the like?” Bernal asked.
In 2016, Kelly Rasti, then an elementary teacher in Northside ISD, faced that very question. In previous years, she experienced complications with pregnancies and miscarried. So in Fall 2016, when Rasti was again pregnant, she left teaching mid-year and stayed home the entire next school year, with support from her family.
Rasti returned to Northside ISD this past year as a family and community involvement liaison. She believes the ability to provide paid leave lies at the state level, not in individual district decisions.
Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has spoken at length about the need to bring more prestige to the teaching profession. He has said that teachers are the single most important factor to improving student outcomes and therefore, teachers should be paid more if they help students perform well.
Some education officials question how the kind of status Morath talks about can come to the teaching profession when the benefits don’t match other prestigious professions.
When asked if the teaching profession could be viewed as prestigious without paid maternity leave as a benefit, SAISD middle school teacher Grace Marengo Sanchez was quick to answer.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “It definitely cannot be.”
When the Rivard Report contacted the Texas State Teachers Association and Texas AFT, two groups that advocate for teachers’ interests, each group said they hadn’t received many questions on the topic.
“I asked around and it doesn’t seem to be an issue, I think because teachers have gotten used to hearing that they’ll have to exhaust all other leave, sick days, disability etc.,” AFT spokesman Rob D’Amico wrote in an e-mail. “Which is terrible, of course.”
Adjusting to the status quo
In 2018, 132 SAISD employees requested maternity leave and 11 requested paternity leave. So far in 2019, 41 staffers have asked for maternity leave and 4 have asked for paternity leave. The district employed about 3,200 full-time teachers in the 2016-17 year.
Marengo Sanchez was one of the 45 in 2019 who requested time off to stay at home with a child. On April 30, two weeks after her due date, she gave birth to her daughter Esther.
Academic year 2018-19 was Marengo Sanchez’s first working in SAISD. For the previous four years, she worked for KIPP, which offers paid parental leave. When she transferred to San Antonio ISD, she knew she wouldn’t have access to paid maternity leave, but was surprised to learn she would not qualify for FMLA coverage because she hadn’t worked the federally prescribed 1,250 hours.
To cope with not having access to 12 protected weeks of unpaid leave, Marengo Sanchez relied on 17 days she had accrued in her previous four years of work.
Throughout the school year Marengo Sanchez’s husband, who works in a different field, used his own leave policy to take their foster son to appointments so that she could conserve days for recovering from giving birth.
“I don’t know how I could have done it without a partner who had leave built up,” she said.
Marengo Sanchez notes that having a few years under her belt elsewhere allowed her to accrue days. First-year teachers don’t have that same advantage, she added. But, on returning to work, she knows she will feel the impact of an empty time-off account when unexpected events come up.
Marengo Sanchez will start next year with zero banked days. This will be inconvenient when she has to take her newborn to doctor’s appointments. It will also make it unlikely Marengo Sanchez will be able to build up enough time for a subsequent pregnancy.
“I am continually just astounded that a field that is dominated by women – and many of them during child-bearing years – is so terrible at providing these benefits for their employees,” Marengo Sanchez said. “I think, unfortunately, teachers are just okay with the status quo.
“Nobody is outraged about it the way I felt when I was figuring all this out. What do you mean I don’t qualify for FMLA? What do you mean my short-term disability is not going to pay me any benefits?”