Special Report

How the Maternity Leave Policy at BHS is Impacting Teachers

BHS teachers recount their experiences with the twists and turns of parental leave.

In January of 2019, Berkeley International High School (BIHS) Vice Principal Carrie Berg went on parental leave for the birth of her son. The policy at the time stated that Berg would receive differential pay; the difference in salary of what she would’ve been paid versus what her replacement got. However, because Berg was a new administrator at the time, her replacement actually made more money, so Berg received no pay for the time she took off work. 

Following this incident, the Union of Berkeley Administrators changed the policy to allow administrators a 25 percent salary for both maternity and paternity leave. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) has a similar policy, allotting teachers 25 percent of pay for up to 89 days of parental leave. While 25 percent is an improvement from no pay, according to Berg, the reduced pay still proves a difficult challenge to manage, a sentiment widely shared by many other Berkeley High School (BHS) teachers.

According to John Becker, member of the BFT bargaining team and former BFT vice president, Berkeley teachers actually have a couple of options when it comes to taking parental leave. They can opt to use saved up sick days, — teachers get eleven every year — and once they’ve exhausted those, can receive differential pay. Teachers can also save their sick days and opt for just getting 25 percent pay for the duration of their leave. 

In terms of which option will pay more, “It’s just a total [guess] about whether it’s more or less than 25 percent,” said Becker, who focused mainly on the parental leave policy during his time as union vice president. 

“The amount of time that we can take off is really great,” said Academic Choice (AC) teacher Crystal Rigley, who took maternity leave during the fall of 2018. “I just think the 25 percent pay is ridiculous. What am I doing with 25 percent of my salary?”

“We’re a female-based job,” Rigley added. “We should have amazing support for female workers, including maternity leave.” Historically, however, “a lot of it comes down to the idea that teaching is thought of as women’s work,” Becker explained. “Women’s work is thought of as the secondary income,” and thus is devalued in society. 

AC teacher Matthew Laurel took the first forty days of the school year off in 2018, significantly less than the 89 allotted days. Laurel had initially opted to use his 68 available sick days for paternity leave. However, missing more than forty days straight would’ve put him a year behind on the salary advance teachers get every year. “I still wanted to get paid,” Laurel said. “You’re about to have a baby, I mean, you really can’t afford to not get paid.”

Despite efforts from the BFT to push for higher pay, “school districts just don’t have a lot of money,” Becker said. “That’s not even to say that they’re stingy or evil. There’s just no extra money anywhere.” 

Additionally, public school teachers aren’t covered by the California State Disability Insurance (SDI) program, which would offer 60 to 70 percent pay for up to eight weeks of family leave. In order for Berkeley teachers to join the SDI program, a one percent income tax would have to be paid by all teachers, regardless of whether they would take family leave or not. 

The BFT attempted to garner membership support for this move, however, “the idea of the one percent income tax didn’t sit well with enough people,” Becker said. “There’s always different priorities for different members of the union.”

In 2019, Assembly Bill 500 was proposed, which would require public school districts and community colleges to provide at least six weeks of paid parental leave for educators. However, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, stating that it would be too costly for school districts. 

Aside from the financial struggle that already underpaid teachers face taking parental leave, “most of us teachers take our work very seriously,” Becker said. “It’s hard for us to let go completely, and to relinquish control.” Thus, while teachers are technically responsible for nothing while on leave, many of them ended up working during or before their leave in order to compensate for lost time. 

While Rigley had taken an entire semester off for maternity leave, she ended up returning during her time off to teach just her academic support class of eight students. “I just wanted my kids to have the best chance to learn the material,” Rigley said. “It’s never perfect, but we help out because we care about our kids.”

When Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS) teacher Sarah Geshell took maternity leave in the fall of 2020, she took it upon herself to plan out and pre-upload all the lessons day by day for the months she would be gone. “That aspect was frustrating because I wasn’t really getting paid for the time I was out, but I was still providing all of the materials,” Geshell said. 

Additionally, Geshell struggled to find a long-term substitute for her students, something that still wasn’t figured out until after she went on leave. As a result, her students had several random substitutes for the first week, and a few different long-term substitutes for the following months. 

Becker also experienced a complicated sub situation, as his long-term substitute quit the day before his wife went into labor. Due to the last-minute change, his students ended up with four subs over the course of his paternity leave. “It was a really negative experience for [my students],” Becker said. “They felt like they went backwards intellectually during that time.”

“Overall, I think I had a very fortunate experience,” Laurel remarked, expressing gratitude for the paid time off he did receive, as well as the communication and assistance he got from the administration. While the process of clarifying parental leave logistics can be confusing, “Just talk to your human resources representatives,” Laurel advised. “They’re usually pretty open, so don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Update: This article was edited to fix a wording issue.

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