The Complex Reality of Parental Leave at U-32

This article was written by Journalism students Maia Pasco and Evelyn Rocha.

Correction: A previous version of this article included a few errors. It stated, “Zack was grateful for the ability to take a year off.” This information was incorrect and has been updated to say “Zack was grateful to take the time off.” Zack’s name also was previously misspelled as Zach and has been updated. Finally, it stated, “employees can receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave under the FMLA.” However, FMLA leave is unpaid, not paid.

 

“It was a really expensive year.”

 

Christiana Martin struggled when she had her youngest kid. Christiana is a social studies teacher at U-32 who has been out on parental leave before. 

 

What are U-32’s guidelines? “There’s the contract language, but then there are also the federal guidelines,” said Steven Dellinger-Pate, U-32’s principal. Although U-32 cannot change the federal guidelines, the contract every faculty member has can be adjusted through a negotiation process. 

 

If a teacher needs to take time off for familial and/or medical reasons they must fill out a federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) request. 

 

FMLA Leave Request Form (Evelyn Rocha/Chronicle) – Please note that this picture does not show the form in its entirety

 

The FMLA states that you can be gone for a maximum of 12 weeks, after that you can request more time if needed. “The FMLA doesn’t guarantee that you’re paid for the duration, but what it does for that 12 weeks is guarantee that your employer has to let you come back at the end,” said Lynnea Timpone, Steven’s administrative assistant. Additionally, when U-32 staff come back from FMLA leave, they are guaranteed a similar position with the same pay. The FMLA is about job positions rather than pay.

 

However, an FMLA request doesn’t have to be for 12 weeks, it can be for a month, or just Mondays, if needed. “It doesn’t have to be consecutive days, but it does have to be a consistent thing, it’s not just a sick day,” said Steven. 

 

According to the district’s teacher agreement (which is separate from the FMLA), U-32 staff get 20 days of paid parental leave. If they are absent after those 20 days, they are unpaid. If a staff member does not have at least 20 days saved up, other staff members can donate sick days to them. This often affects new teachers because they do not have enough sick days saved up yet.

 

WCUUSD’s Teacher Agreement for Leaves of Absence (Maia Pasco/Chronicle)

 

“With every child, I took leave beyond the paid [parental] leave,” Christiana said. For one of her children, she decided to take the whole year off. “I took the whole school year, which meant that I blew through all of my sick days.” 

 

However, she was still able to return to her same job. “It’s great that in the contract teachers can take up to a year…they held my job for me, which I’m really grateful for.” 

 

Christiana Martin with her two daughters and son (Christiana Martin)

 

Still, there were many challenges to taking a whole year off. “It was really hard because not only are you unpaid, but you also have to pay your full health insurance…” Christiana said. When U-32 staff are away on an extended leave (which is different from parental leave), they are temporarily excluded from the district’s health benefits, but when they return, they are covered by it again. If a staff member goes out on parental leave, they are still covered by the health benefits while they are away.

 

Along with the healthcare struggles, Christiana also faced challenges surrounding childcare. “Even though I took the year off from my job, if I pulled my other two kids from daycare they weren’t guaranteed a spot when I started my job back up.” This means that she would still have to pay for a year of childcare for her kids, just to keep them in daycare, while not getting paid and paying her health insurance.  

 

“I have taken two maternity leaves, once in 2016 and once in 2019, and each time I used my sick time to get paid,” said Adrian Wade, an art teacher at U-32. “I could have taken more time, but I didn’t because I assumed I would have another kid…I also knew that my baby was going to get sick at some point.” 

 

Adrian said that the school was very supportive, and since most of them have children they were able to understand what she was going through. “In the short term, it was really lovely, and I know that other people have had the same experience where they feel really supported.”

 

Adrian Wade (middle) with her son Henry (left) and her daughter Josephine (right)  (Adrian Wade)

 

“I enjoyed it [parental leave] so much, getting to know my brand new baby, and getting to support my wife,” said Zack Gonzalez, a social studies teacher at U-32.  “I felt really really lucky that I got to see my son for the first eight weeks.” 

 

Zack Gonzalez and his son River (Zack Gonzalez)

 

Zack appreciated that he was able to go out on parental leave without worrying about consequences related to his position and income. “It made me feel like that should be an option for everyone.” He did note that his perspective was as the father, so he didn’t have to deal with any of the physical aspects of giving birth. 

 

Zack was grateful for the ability to take the time off. He said, “I hope that everyone would have the opportunity that I had to do that, I’m sad for people who don’t get to do that.” 

 

Zack thinks the bond between parents and their children when they are together is very important. He said about his son, “Being at home with his mom and myself… he feels extremely loved and attached, and that in the developmental psych way, he has a strong and healthy attachment to us.”

 

“The way that a baby responds in the first year of their life is mostly to the connection with their parents,” said Adrian. “Their initial response is to scream for their parents…and if that kid isn’t getting that need met, the needs that go on top of that will never occur.” This can lead to a harder life for both the child and their parent since that emotional and physical bond was never created as a child. 

 

According to the National Library of Medicine, “Early childhood, sometimes known as the early years, is the most essential developmental stage of life, during which critical advances are made in the physical, social, cognitive, emotional, family environment, and linguistic domains.”

 

Christiana said that being able to take the year off was really great for her, “We have a really nice bond because of it, it was pretty cool, but difficult, it was difficult.”

 

Discussions about parental leave are strongly connected to issues around feminism and gender roles. Since women have started working in America, there have been frequent debates about how mothers should balance work and parenting. “I think that there’s this lingering idea that the best place for a child is at home with a mother who doesn’t work at all,” Christiana said. 

 

In comparison to the rest of the Western world, America offers minimal parental leave. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employees can receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the FMLA. In opposition, according to Nordic Co-operation, in Norway, parents can receive up to 12  months of paid leave. That’s a 9-month difference.

 

“To offer extensive maternity leave is highlighting a woman’s role outside of the home, which I think America is still grappling with as a concept,” said Christiana. “Slow progress here in America.” 

Numerous teachers who have gone out on parental leave have reported that U-32 is not an outlier in terms of bad policies. Christiana said, “I think U-32 is adapting and is listening to what people want…The fact that U-32 has made [parental leave] more equitable is really progress. In general, though, it’s not as much a U-32 thing as an American thing.” 

 

Christiana wants to see progress within the school. “I think we’ve got good people negotiating and looking at the contract and making sure that there’s options for everyone. The best options we can get. I would really like to see change in my lifetime.”

 

Steven said, “They [the parental leave guidelines] are okay. But I think that there are certainly some ways that we can probably make them more favorable.”

 

Adrian said that in her experience U-32 was really supportive of parental leave, but she also wants to see more. “I think that three months for a parent to adjust to having a child is not long enough. And I also think that it doesn’t get any easier.”

 

Christiana said, “I think in general America could do a better job. If America had a maternity leave program, then U-32 could benefit from that. But America has no [paid] maternity leave. And that’s really hard.” In the case of future laws, she said she would vote yes to extend paid parental leave every time. She wants future parents to be able to have what she didn’t, even if she has to spend her tax dollars on it. “I’m trying to be a champion of those people,” she said.

 

According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, paid leave that is extended noticeably helps the beginning and length of breastfeeding, which benefits the babies and mothers invaluably. Additionally, it can increase the efficiency of a baby’s immune system. 

 

For mothers, paid leave can decrease the risk of cancer in the ovaries and breasts and can help prevent diabetes and obesity. It also helps the mother and child emotionally. Christiana said, “Everything you can see from doctors to pediatricians say the more time you can spend with your baby the more bonding [you have]. And I would say that equals something in the long run.” 

 

She pointed out that parental leave can relate to education issues, “If you have well-adjusted babies and families, you have well-adjusted students,” She said. “If our job here [at U-32] is to educate the whole student, doesn’t it make sense that we would prioritize starting at the whole life of the child?”

 

Christiana feels that paid parental leave is an invaluable resource for working parents. She said,“If you’re being offered time off from work to bond with your baby, who would not take that?”

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