Less than a year after she started teaching in Norman Public Schools, Sarah Dasch had to retire from her job.
Dasch, now a resource teacher at Cleveland Elementary who has been with NPS for several years, gave birth to her daughter in March of her first year teaching with the district. She had 10 days of sick time, two personal days, and a supply of sick days that other teachers had donated to her, allowing her to take a little leave after giving birth.
But she couldn’t access disability leave, since her pregnancy counted as a pre-existing condition, and couldn’t get Family and Medical Leave benefits, since she’d been in the job for such a short time. After taking all the maternity leave she could, Dasch retired from the district two weeks before the school year ended.
“That was stressful — I had a newborn, and I was like, ‘I hope I get hired back, and I hope I have the same position at the school that I was working at,’” said Dasch, who was able to come back to her job in the fall semester. “But that’s not always guaranteed when you take time off.”
Parental leave has become a national conversation in recent years, as several states have begun to embrace paid leave and 2020 presidential candidates have pledged support for the policy. As more states and cities adopt paid leave, studies have found that the benefit can boost mental and physical health for new parents and babies, and could mean that employees are more likely to stay at a job and be productive after returning from leave.
But aside from providing Family and Medical Leave, which is federal law and provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave, Oklahoma, along with many other states, has no mandatory parental benefits policy.
While Oklahoma’s 2020 legislative session starts Monday, only one house bill has the potential to directly address parental leave. HB 2865 would grant five days of paid parental leave a year to any employee in Oklahoma who works at least 20 hours a week with an employer with at least 10 employees, and has been with their employer for at least 180 days. But the bill isn’t assigned to a committee, and likely won’t be heard during this session.
In the education field, teachers — who are still disproportionately female in Oklahoma and across the nation — are feeling the lack of paid leave or cohesive policy. For Norman teachers, “parental leave” is sick time, personal days, short-term disability and Family and Medical Leave strung together in whatever way they’re available.
“[The profession] is definitely dominated by young females, and the fact that they don’t cater to that, it’s kind of frustrating,” said Brandi Graham, a social studies teacher at Whittier Middle School.
Many large Oklahoma districts have similar, if not equivalent policies to those at Norman Public Schools.
School districts, like most other employers, are federally required to provide employees with Family and Medical Leave (FMLA), which grants 12 weeks of leave in the event of personal illness, injury, a serious illness in the immediate family or pregnancy. In Norman, teachers must take any sick or personal days — during which they would be paid — concurrently with FMLA, which is unpaid.
Unused sick days can accumulate from year to year, though cumulative days are capped at 185.
After teachers use up sick leave, they still have 20 days of excess leave, during which they receive their normal salary, but have to pay $70 a day for a substitute teacher. NPS teachers also receive three personal days each year.
According to Education Week, which reported on teachers’ parental leave in April 2019, public school teachers receive an average of 12 sick and personal days each year, meaning NPS falls just above the average.
“I’m not aware of any school district, university, or state agency that offers paid parental leave, unfortunately,” NPS spokesperson Alesha Leemaster said in an email. “That said, we do offer the same — and sometimes more — than our surrounding districts with regard to parental leave...we provide excessive sick leave (we offer more than some districts) and also offer shared sick leave, where employees can donate their unused sick leave to other employees to help fill a gap if one exists.”
The district’s sick time can cover some teachers when they get pregnant. When Ally Kasulis had her son in 2015, she’d been working with NPS for three years, and had enough sick days to bolster nine weeks of postpartum leave.
But when Kasulis, a science teacher at Whittier Middle School, got pregnant again and gave birth to her daughter two years later, her sick leave hadn’t recovered from being wiped out by her first pregnancy. She had about four weeks of leave she could take with her daughter, she said, and decided to apply for shared sick leave to get more time.
Shared sick leave is open to NPS employees, and involves the administration sending out a district-wide email with an employee’s first initial and last name noting that they are seeking sick leave donations. For legal reasons, the email does not describe why the employee is seeking donations.
After Kasulis applied, the district sent out her email over Labor Day weekend, she said. When sick leave sharing emails get sent during holiday breaks or over the summer, teachers are much less likely to see the emails, she said.
Kasulis never heard back from the district on how many shared days she had received, she said, and ended up taking excess sick time during which she paid for her own substitute teacher. While Kasulis did end up getting nine weeks home with her daughter, she said the stress and financial strain of the situation was made worse by the fact that the sick leave sharing policy was so confusing.
“When I got pregnant with [my daughter], it was terrifying because I was like, ‘I don’t have enough money to actually pay to be home,’ which is sad that you have to pay to be home,” Kasulis said. “...On top of the normal teaching stress, then you’re also having a baby and you have to get sub plans ready, and then you’re like, ‘well, I also have to pay to be gone, so I have to figure out how to fill out paperwork and money and budget, and you’re paying for hospital bills after having the baby.”
Graham had to fight for the sick leave share during her second pregnancy. She was five years into teaching with NPS when she had a miscarriage, and used most of her available sick days to recover.
Graham got pregnant again shortly after her miscarriage, and applied for sick leave share, thinking that after experiencing loss and using lots of sick days, she would give herself and her baby more time to heal physically and mentally after her baby was born.
“Having a baby is hard, but then having a newborn after experiencing the loss of a previous child is even harder,” Graham said, “it’s important that mothers have enough time to heal physically and mentally get themselves into a state to be a mom.”
But Graham said that without having an actual conversation with her, the two-person board that handles sick leave share applications denied her application. She was told that just having a baby wasn’t enough of a reason for her to receive shared days, she said, and ended up fighting back.
“Because I was saying I wanted to be home with my infant after experiencing loss, they said it wasn’t an appropriate use of sick leave share at first,” Graham said. “So then I ended up having several meetings with our administration, and they finally approved it.”
While NPS teachers say the sick leave sharing policies — and the overall parental leave guidelines — are unclear and vary depending on who they talk to, Leemaster said that on the district’s end, the leave policy is “pretty straight forward.” The district’s general guidelines are outlined in its online Board of Education Policies and Administrative Regulations manual.
“If an employee has questions or needs clarification, we encourage them to work closely with our Personnel Office to work through their individual circumstances,” Leemaster wrote in an email.
But Kasulis said the district’s policies, especially around sick leave sharing, were not clear to her or many other teachers from the beginning.
“Anybody that I know that’s had a baby has had problems with maternity leave and having days and sick leave sharing and all that,” Kasulis said. “...I feel like it’s very confusing. And you have to search people, you have to search out information — it is not readily available — and like I said, the people that I was supposed to talk to over the years of having two kids changed three times, and got different information from all of them. So even if you do seek it out, you’re not necessarily getting the right information.”
The ongoing struggle
For teachers, the struggle doesn’t end after they return to work. Several NPS teachers said they had to use all their sick or personal days to take postpartum leave, and found themselves with no remaining days left in a school year to attend their baby’s doctor appointments or take time if they themselves got sick.
Kasulis has parents nearby to help care for her children, but was only able to go to her daughter’s checkups with colleagues’ help, she said. School policies mean she can’t take just an hour or two off to go to an appointment — she’d have to take a whole or half day if coworkers didn’t cover her, she said.
“I think that’s the thing that teachers do best is we help each other out,” Kasulis said. “So I think the only way I would have been able to go to all my doctor’s appointments for my second child was the fact that teachers covered classes for me instead of me actually taking days.”
Many teachers end up having to plan their pregnancies to have optimal time off during the summer or breaks, but the strategy doesn’t always work, said Graham, who noted that couples sometimes struggle to conceive.
“It becomes like a you have a time crunch, like these are the only times you can conceive if you don’t have the days saved up,” Graham said. “I was due with my second baby May 26, and we got out of school May 23, so I had to make sure that I was due sometime within May to make it work.”
Dasch will give birth to her third child this summer, and will use her sick and personal days to stay home for the first few weeks of the upcoming school year. The timing will leave her with no sick or personal days for the rest of the semester, she said.
“I don’t have a bank anymore to pull from,” Dasch said. “So that’s a little stressful looking forward to that happening next year. I’m going to take my days because I want to have my time with my newborn. But then the rest of the year, I don’t know what I’m going to do if I have to take time off. I don’t know if I’m going to have to pay for a sub each time — I haven’t been in that situation yet.”
Parental leave isn’t just an issue that impacts teachers.
According to a 2019 report from the Oklahoma Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System, 67.3% of Oklahoma mothers — across professions — worked during their most recent pregnancy, and 60.9% of those mothers used unpaid leave post-pregnancy before most returned to their jobs.
As the U.S. does not have any federal paid leave policies, the issue falls to states or cities to handle on their own. Education Week reported last year that Delaware’s governor signed a law that would give state employees (including teachers) 12 weeks of paid parental leave, while New York City teachers won six weeks of paid parental leave in late 2018. On a national level, the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, set to take effect this October, will give federal employees 12 weeks of paid family leave.
Despite the prevalent idea that paid parental leave puts more of a strain on the employer, initial studies have found that paid leave is beneficial to parents and employers alike.
According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, postpartum depression and infant mortality rates both decline when parents have access to leave, and paid leave offers these benefits and more to all families regardless of financial status. In a 2017 report, the Urban Institute shared that mothers with paid leave are more likely to return to their job after taking leave, and employers in states with paid leave report positive or neutral effects on their employee’s productivity and profitability after they implemented paid leave.
“Just having a conversation about parental leave, it’s almost like anytime it gets brought up, it’s ‘oh that’s not super important, that’s something we put on the back burner’ — we get eye rolls,” Graham said. “And that’s really frustrating to me, because I think a healthy and happy employee is a productive employee, and there’s research that supports that...if I’m feeling like I’m being punished for having a baby, then I’m not going to be happy.”
Several Norman teachers said that paid leave for six weeks, even at half pay, would alleviate much of the financial and organizational stress they deal with now. In the past, several teachers have banded together to begin exploring options, but didn’t keep up their informal committee as their school years got busy.
Stephania Abell, a music teacher at Norman High, was working at Mustang Public Schools when she gave birth to her children, and said even the sick leave options she saw there would be beneficial in Norman.
Instead of Norman’s sick leave sharing application and email process, Abell had access to a sick leave bank at Mustang, she said. There, teachers could donate one day a year to the bank, then borrow up to ten times however many days they’d donated. Abell had been at the district three years when she gave birth, and could access at least 30 days from the bank on top of her own accumulated sick leave.
For Dasch, any extra leave would have made a difference after her second pregnancy. In between her first pregnancy and her current pregnancy, Dasch gave birth to a boy. She learned her son had medical complications when she was six months pregnant, and gave birth early.
Dasch went through all her FMLA, disability and sick time — regular, shared and excess — and then went back to work while her son, then recovering from heart surgery, was still in the hospital.
Her son died just days after she had to return to work.
“If I had had two more days, I would have gotten to be with him the whole time,” Dasch said. “That breaks my heart that I didn’t have the freedom to take all the time that I needed to be with him.”
Correction: This story was updated to reflect that Norman teachers do not receive vacation time, and accordingly that Sarah Dasch had 10 days of sick time — not vacation time — during her first pregnancy. The Transcript regrets the error.
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