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California teachers on medical leave have to pay for their substitutes. Will lawmakers step in?

Sacramento Bee - 1/17/2020

Jan. 17--Sacramento special education teacher David Young doesn't like calling in sick to work, even on days when he's feeling the side effects of his chemotherapy treatments for bladder and prostate cancer and would rather curl up in bed.

But he has to go in, and not just because he loves working with his students and the co-workers who rely on his help.

Young, 51, also risks a financial hit if he misses too much school -- one most private sector workers don't have to worry about.

Because they are not eligible for state disability insurance, most California public school teachers must reimburse their employers for some of the cost of hiring a substitute during an extended medical leave.

"I even came in on days that I was sick from chemo to work," Young said in interviews with The Sacramento Bee.

The arrangement, known as differential pay, dates back to the 1970s, when teachers chose not to pay into the state disability insurance fund that covers workers when they're sick, injured or on pregnancy leave. Private sector workers pay into the fund with a paycheck deduction.

The California Legislature then determined that school districts could use a portion of a teacher's wages to pay a substitute. That "differential" pay kicks in when teachers go on extended leave of up to five months, after they've exhausted their 10 sick days and accumulated time off.

Young said he bought a supplemental disability insurance plan, "just in case," which would cover 75 percent of his salary.

So far, though, he's skipped sick days to avoid both differential pay and going on disability.

"I'm trying to keep my sick days up. Accruing more and more is what I'm all about," Young said. "I'm concerned that something might happen again, and that I will...I might need some days."

Reform on the way?

Differential pay has recently caught the attention of a former labor leader who is now chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

State Sen. Connie Leyva, a Chino Democrat and former president of the California Labor Federation, introduced Senate Bill 796 this month to remedy what she called an archaic mistake that's left teachers unnecessarily on the hook for their substitutes' wages.

"At a time when a teacher is literally fighting for their life, they're not receiving their full pay," Leyva said. "So how are they going to make their house payment, their rent payment? They may even be wondering how they are going to make the premium on their insurance."

Leyva's legislation is new and unions and district representatives alike have yet to consider their position. But the legislation begs an expensive question: Who will pay for the change?

Kevin Gordon, whose lobbying firm Capitol Advisors represents a majority of California school districts, said Leyva's idea seems like a noble solution to a poignant problem, but one that carries substantial financial consequences.

"It's a righteous cause, without any money," Gordon said. "It'd be great, if the Legislature were willing to pay for it."

A pricey choice

Young has been teaching special education in the Sacramento City Unified School District for 16 years, with the past seven at C.K. McClatchy High School.

He was diagnosed with cancer in December 2017. For nearly six months, his life centered on trying to rid his body of a painful disease with side effects that include urinary and bowel dysfunction and bleeding.

He had surgery in January 2018 to remove as much of a tumor as possible, with eight weeks of chemotherapy to follow. He then had his bladder and prostate removed in May. He lost his hair, his energy, and 80 sick days accrued over 13 years in the process.

During treatments, Young said he'd avoid staying home when possible, but sometimes he'd have to take a "sporadic" chunk of four to five days off. He didn't like leaving his co-teacher in a bind, he explained, or relinquishing precious time off originally reserved for retirement.

"I would try to come in on days that I was feeling okay, or wasn't too nauseous," Young said, "So I could hold on to as many sick days as I could."

Young is now cancer free, but a slew of health complications -- including depression, chronic exhaustion and a pulmonary embolism in his lung from chemo -- have left him needing extra sick days.

When considering his options, the veteran teacher was told by his human resources department that he could take additional time off, but that he might have to pay about $130 for each day a substitute was hired as his replacement, to be cut from his paycheck.

Sacramento City Unified School District pays its substitutes in most of the K-12 schools a $146 daily rate for up to five days, when they start getting paid $222 a day. Sacramento Unified teachers make an average of $91,250. Teachers aren't required to pay more than half of their paycheck toward a substitute.

Local unions usually work with their districts to establish paid leave banks where members can donate time to sick teachers.

More than 1,173 hours were donated to the Sacramento district's bank in the 2018-2019 school year, district spokeswoman Catalina Martinez said. About 15 teachers each year dip into the fund, estimated Nikki Milevsky, first vice president for the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

"But while the number is relatively small," Milevsky continued, "The impact on the individual, because it is someone with a serious illness, can be enormous."

Young said he hasn't had to ask for help just yet. He's also confident his colleagues would step in with sick time donations, and he's already accrued eight days since 2018 on his own.

On his "healthy days," he has energy and does his job well. Other days are harder.

He's grateful for his health insurance and for the allotted 10 days off, he said. But in retrospect, he thinks a $130-a-day pay cut might have been a better option.

"Looking back, I worked too hard," he said. "I should have allowed myself a better break."

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