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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Massachusetts teachers unions increasingly willing to go on strike to secure paid parental leave

Kathryn Teissier du Cros joined fellow NPS teachers picketing City Hall. She has been strongly advocating for a more equitable paid parental leave policy for all members.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The end of the two-week Newton teacher strike could not have arrived at a better time for Shayna Packer: The special education teacher is scheduled to be induced into labor Wednesday, and thanks to a new contract the Newton Teachers Association secured, she will get 12 weeks of paid parental leave, a real boon for her growing family.

It was a hard-fought victory for Packer and other Newton educators, who under their previous agreement were provided with as little as 10 days of paid leave after having a child, forcing many to take additional time off without pay or tap into sick time they had. Others even tried to plan the births of their children to align with summer break so they could ensure they had the time off.

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While most private sector workers and state government employees are covered by the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave law, which can provide birthing parents up to 26 weeks of paid time off, state lawmakers decided against extending that benefit to local school districts and municipalities. Consequently, Packer said she had the worst parental leave benefit among her friends before last week’s new contract deal improved Newton’s leave policy.

“I don’t think teachers are super valued,” she said. “It was a challenging pregnancy.”

Across Massachusetts, teachers unions are pushing for more equity in paid parental leave and in some cases are willing to go on strike for it, as they did in Newton, Andover, and Malden. Many union leaders and educators question whether their exclusion from the state law reflect a sexist attitude towards a profession largely composed of women.

“It’s ironic or tragic that educators — largely women — do not have access to a consistent good policy on paid parental leave,” said Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. He said the failure of state lawmakers to guarantee paid parental leave to public educators is now forcing teacher unions to seek the benefit on their own from local districts, resulting in “a series of individual struggles at the bargaining table for something ... that is so basic it should be universal.”

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Many of the new teacher contract provisions provide up to 12 paid weeks of parental leave. Under state law, paid family and medical leave can run between 12 and 26 weeks, depending upon whether an individual has a serious health condition related to pregnancy, prenatal or postnatal care, or recovery from childbirth. Non-birthing parents typically receive 12 paid weeks of leave to bond with a new child.

In crafting the state law, which passed in 2018, State lawmakers considered including municipal employees, but decided against it and instead gave municipalities the option to join. Attempts by the MTA and other organizations to amend the law to mandate the benefit have been unsuccessful.

One of the biggest opponents to a mandate has been the cities and towns themselves. Municipal leaders, via the Massachusetts Municipal Association, expressed concerns over the cost of the program and the burden it could place on residents if they needed to increase taxes to pay for the benefit.

The municipal association also noted many union contracts for police, fire, and other workers already include provisions around paid leave that are more generous than the state program, noting many union contracts allow members to stockpile unused sick days every year rather than having a use-it-or-lose-it policy that typically exists in the private sector.

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“Every city and town must have the ability to assess their own situation and determine whether [the Paid Family and Medical Leave law] is something that would benefit their community and its employees,” said Adam Chapdelaine, executive director of the municipal association, in a statement last week.

Although many union contracts have strong provisions for sick time, policies around paid parental leave specifically can be for a shorter period than the state law. Parental leave policies differ in some key ways from sick time — providing time off for non-birthing parents, including those adopting children.

The lack of uniformity in parental leave policies among school districts has led to a patchwork system that requires educators to cobble together a mixture of paid parental leave if they’re lucky to get it, with sick time so they can spend extended time home with a new baby or adopted child.

But such policies can lead to inequities in how much paid time off educators in the same district can take because sick time is accumulated, putting younger teachers at a disadvantage.

The new agreement in Newton, for instance, will provide 60 days of parental leave, but not everyone will get all that time off with full pay. The district will provide 20 days off with pay officially designated as parental leave; the rest of the days will need to be covered by sick time.

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If employees don’t have enough sick time stockpiled, then they may need to spread out the time by accepting a lower pay rate or return to work if they don’t want to lose too much money -- an outcome more likely for younger teachers.

Kathryn Teissier du Cros, a French teacher in Newton Public Schools, has a theory shared by many other educators about why districts are less inclined to provide full access to paid parental leave for younger teachers.

“They are worried about bad actors, worried about women coming into districts having babies and then leaving,” she said.

But Teissier du Cros emphasized most teachers want to, and do, return to the classroom; that’s exactly what she did after having her second child during her first year of teaching in Newton.

Deb Gesualdo, president of the Malden Education Association, said the fight for parental leave in many ways reflects the decades of discrimination women have encountered in the teaching profession that mobilized them to unionize. She noted that for years many educators were barred from teaching while pregnant. The US Supreme Court eventually ruled in 1974 that such prohibitions violated the due process rights of pregnant educators after several of them sued.

Malden educators, she said, finally secured paid parental leave in their contract following a one-day strike in October 2022. The provision provides all members after six months of employment with six weeks of parental leave and also enables them to use up to six weeks of accrued sick time if they have it.

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Previously, members could only use their sick time for parental leaves and capped it off at eight weeks. That meant a first-year teacher who got pregnant had only 14 sick days available for paid time off during maternity leave.

“It penalized people for wanting to start a family,” Gesualdo said. “It was sexist and misogynistic.”

In their newly won contract in November, Andover teachers got eight weeks of paid parental leave and the option to use up to an additional four weeks of accrued time off. Previously, union members could only use eight sick days for parental leave for the non-birthing parent, while those who gave birth could get an additional eight weeks of unpaid time off, according to Matthew Bach, president of the Andover Education Association.

“It felt like we were living in the 19th century,” he said.

Mandy McLaren of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.