Should California Teachers Who Become Seriously Ill Have to Pay for Their Own Subs?

1 min
A girl raises her hand in class. (Getty Images)

A San Francisco public school teacher who is fighting a serious illness will have the cost of her replacement — a substitute — deducted from her paycheck while she is out on extended sick leave.

A policy mandating the practice in the California Education Code was crafted by the Legislature and the governor in the early 1970s. Since then, districts and unions across the state have come up with sick-leave donation banks as a workaround to help teachers in dire situations — but even these arrangements force instructors to forgo some pay before they can accept sick days donated by their colleagues.

In San Francisco, the cost of a long term substitute teacher is $203.16 per day. The average teacher in the district makes $82,024.37. So even veteran teachers who make more than that will get only about half their daily pay while out on extended leave after payment for a substitute is deducted from their salary.

In Oakland, which has a similar policy, the union filed a grievance this week against the district, arguing that it is failing to convert unused personal days to a teacher's sick-leave accrual at the end of each year — a move that would further shortchange a teacher facing a serious illness.

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At a time when teachers are scrambling to find ways to afford living in the pricey Bay Area, the situation has infuriated some parents and staff at the San Francisco school in question, and they are mobilizing support for the infirm teacher, who asked not to be identified out of privacy concerns.

"I just can't believe how grossly unfair it is," said parent Amanda Kahn Fried. "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."

The law that calls for districts to deduct the cost of a substitute from teachers' paychecks when they are out on extended leave has caught the attention of state Sen. Connie Leyva.

"It really does seem like we need to do something to rectify this problem," said Leyva, D-Chino, who heads the Senate Education Committee. "Maybe what worked back then doesn't work now, and maybe we need to reconsider that law."

Several teachers at the San Francisco school tried to donate their unused sick-leave days to their colleague, but learned she had never joined something called the catastrophic sick-bank pool, which teachers must join during specific eligibility periods to be able to receive additional sick days.

According to the San Francisco and Oakland school districts, however, there are workarounds -- complicated but viable -- for teachers who are not eligible for the sick-bank donation: "Qualifying teachers" can donate their days.

But those donated days can't be used until after the sick teacher exhausts her extended sick leave at partial pay — a period of 100 days. The United Federation of Educators, the union representing San Francisco teachers, said there may be a wellness grant the teacher can apply for, but that presumes she has the energy at this stage of her illness to advocate for herself.

Leyva is questioning whether the state should leave it to school districts to bargain with teachers on this issue.

"I don't know that we ever negotiate enough to make sure that when people are out on sick leave they have what they need, but I'd never heard of this until I got here to the Senate," she said of the law.

"It was likely a compromise to limit the cost of a district's liability," said Chuck King, a negotiator with the California Teachers Association.

King said if the state's Education Code were changed to take the burden off teachers, the state would have to come up with money to fund it to avoid forcing already cash-strapped districts to pay both the teacher and her substitute over extended periods of time.

"It's kind of a raw deal if you are dealing with a catastrophic illness and then on top of that you get a tiny paycheck," King added. "It's always a big thing when it comes up because there is a lot of sympathy."

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SFUSD said it could not provide the number of teachers who took extended leave last year and had their paychecks reduced to account for the cost of replacement subs. The district said in a statement that classified employees pay into the state's disability program, but certified teachers do not.

Both SFUSD and the Oakland Unified School District pointed to state code as the reason they deduct the cost of substitutes from the paycheck of teachers on extended leave. But it's up to districts and individual unions to work out specific leave agreements, said Cynthia Butler, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

Few large districts across the country prorate the paychecks of sick teachers to pay the cost of their substitutes. In Chicago, for example, teachers on leave due to serious long-term illnesses receive 100% of their pay for the first 30 days, 80% for the following month and 60% for the third month. That's after they've used up all 10 sick days plus any accrued sick time. Fellow teachers can donate their sick days to a colleague for use at any time.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, which keeps a limited database on teacher-leave policies nationwide, only 22 districts out of 148 — including New York City, the country's largest — have policies in which the cost of a substitute is deducted from a sick teacher's pay.

If you know a teacher in this situation, please contact reporter Julia McEvoy at jmcevoy@kqed.org

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