Luisa Ayala should have been thrilled to be pregnant with her second daughter in December 2016. But having given birth to her first child just over a year earlier, she found herself in a wrenching predicament.
The Department of Education’s current parental leave policy provides up to six weeks of leave, but new mothers must effectively pay for any days they take using the days in their Cumulative Absence Reserve (CAR). Because Ayala, a paraprofessional at Pelham Academy of Academics and Community Engagement in the Bronx, used up most of her CAR days after her first pregnancy and felt she couldn’t afford to go unpaid, she returned to work just 10 days after her second daughter’s birth.
Two days later, she was admitted to the hospital with a deep vein thrombosis in her left leg and a pulmonary embolism in her lungs.
“I could have lost my life and left my children without a mother,” she says of the life-threatening complication, which women are most at risk for in the six weeks after giving birth. She ended up losing another six days as she recovered — and still returned to work when her daughter was less than three weeks old.
Stories like Ayala’s are why the UFT has launched a campaign to fight for paid parental leave for UFT members. The UFT has attempted to negotiate a fair and reasonable paid parental leave policy with the city ever since Mayor Bill de Blasio in December 2015 imposed a paid parental leave program on the city’s nonunion, managerial employees. That program included givebacks from the managerial employees that the UFT will not accept for its members.
When Emily James, a teacher at Brooklyn Preparatory HS, introduced a petition calling on UFT members to fight for paid parental leave, it garnered 80,000 signatures in just a few months.
“Having a baby is not a sickness,” James says of the city’s current policy. “Borrowed time [for maternity leave] is a loan that many women are never able to pay back.”
Thousands of UFT members have already signed up to be part of the campaign urging the city to provide paid parental leave. Many of them shared stories of being forced to return to work just days or weeks after giving birth because of financial considerations that would not allow them to take a longer, unpaid leave.
“Having to go back to work after six weeks so I could support my family was the toughest part of having a child,” says Dana Reed, a teacher at PS 139 in Rego Park, Queens. “After having to use all of my days and being left with nothing, my fear now is that I won’t be there for my child if she is sick.”
Reed observed the irony of her situation. “I’ve been a special education teacher and have treated these children as my own, and now that I have my own child I’m forced to choose work over her,” she said.
The UFT is pushing at the bargaining table for a parental leave policy that covers adoptions, foster care and fathers as well. Under the current policy, fathers are allowed to take just three personal days before their pay is docked.
After many years of saving and a devastating miscarriage, Eric Rubin-Perez, a school counselor at the John F. Kennedy Jr. School in Elmhurst, Queens, and his husband were thrilled to welcome their first child via a gestational surrogate in the fall of 2013.
“I had over 60 days in my CAR, so it never occurred to me that taking some time would be an issue,” says Rubin-Perez. “My husband, who is a school psychologist on Long Island, got six weeks of paid leave.”
Jenna Liverani, a teacher at IS 125 in Woodside, Queens, had accumulated nearly 70 CAR days after 12 years of teaching. After having an emergency cesarean section on Sept. 9 and taking eight weeks of leave, her CAR has diminished by more than half.
For Liverani, such a loss of sick days is fundamentally unfair to a workforce that is nearly 80 percent female.
“It’s like being punished,” she said, “for having a baby.”