family matters

‘We will get this done’: Union chief vows to fight for paid maternity leave after teachers take up the cause

PHOTO: Courtesy photo
Emily James is one of the New York City teachers behind a petition for paid maternity leave.

Last week, Emily James took the stage at a teachers-union meeting and described what it’s like to work in a school system where teachers get no paid maternity leave.

“My decision with my husband to create a beautiful family of four,” she said, “has left me with my life savings depleted.”

James and Susan Hibdon, a fellow high school teacher in Brooklyn, created a viral online petition calling attention to New York City’s lack of paid leave and demanding that the teachers union negotiate with the city for it. More than 80,000 people have signed on and shared stories about missing rent payments, dipping into savings and even leaving the profession because of the financial burden.

“I wanted to print out the petition comments so you could read all of the stories yourself,” James said during her speech. “But the document was 684 pages long.”

James and Hibdon made their case during the United Federation of Teachers’ executive board meeting on Sept. 25. Their demands drew applause — and a promise by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.

“He looked me in the eye,” James recalled, “and he said, ‘We will get this done.’”

City and union leaders were scheduled to meet Thursday to negotiate paid leave — just as the women’s petition had called for.

In the past, the union has said the city “failed to come up with a meaningful proposal.” On Tuesday, Mulgrew said that the union continues to press the city on paid leave — and is waiting for a response.

“We are trying to determine if the city is actually serious about getting this done,” he said in an emailed statement.

In an email, city spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein called paid parental leave “very important to the mayor.”

“But it has to be negotiated as part of collective bargaining, which is ongoing,” she wrote.

The de Blasio administration has already extended paid leave to non-union city workers, a benefit that came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

But New York City teachers do not receive any paid leave after having a baby. Instead, teachers must use their sick days.

In her speech to union leaders, James highlighted the financial burden that creates for families. The policy creates gender inequities, she said, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick days after having a baby — leaving women less able to save up time that could be cashed-out at retirement.

Mulgrew called James after her speech to assure her the union is committed to negotiating for the benefit, she said.

“I’ll be skeptical until the day something happens,” James said. “But I’m happy to work with him.”

For James, a change in the policy would amount to “the biggest accomplishment of my life so far — and probably Susan’s too,” she said. “Other than giving birth to all these kids.”

Here’s the speech James made at the recent UFT executive board meeting.

Thank you for having me. I’m here to shed light on an issue that has long been important to the parents and children of the DOE. In 2012, I got pregnant with my first daughter. I was so excited, like most first time mothers are. But I didn’t realize then what I know now: that pregnancy marked the beginning of new life for me, not just because I would become a mother, but because I would embark on a long financial struggle that would continue with me for years. My decision with my husband to create a beautiful family of four has left me with my life savings depleted, and in a constant state of panic over not being able to get out of my negative balance.

My story is not unique. Back in May, I started a petition to ask our union to help fight for paid parental leave. Since then, it has exploded: receiving almost 80,000 signatures, and still growing. When I began this petition, I had no idea how many thousands of other women and men were affected by this poor policy. They wrote story after story of how much they have struggled and are still struggling. Women wrote that they are scared to begin a family at all because of this policy, and keep putting it off out of financial fear. Some wrote about missing rent payments and fearing eviction because they had medical complications before birth and just did not have a cushion to lean on. Some wrote about leaving the profession all together because they could not fit motherhood into their lives with this lack of support; It was easier for them to turn somewhere else. I received email after email of story after story about people who were so horribly affected. I wanted to print out the petition comments so you could read all of the stories yourself. But the document was 684 pages long.

This should not be a thing! It should not be a choice for women to be excellent teachers to the students of NYC or to be mothers for their own children. As you know, when we become mothers to our babies, we have to use our sick days in order to be paid for up to 6 weeks, 8 weeks if a C section. Most of us do not have enough days to cover that time, and if we already had a child, then forget it. Having a baby is not a sickness. Borrowed time is not maternity leave time. It is a loan that many women are never able to pay back. I have been buying back one day a month for a whole year and am still in a negative balance. I need that money to help with my two daughters, my mortgage, my life. This also becomes an issue of gender equality. Men are able to retire with many more days that they can cash in. When we retire, if we have decided to have and raise children, or stay with them until they are 6, 8 or 12 WEEKS old, we will have so many fewer days than most men.

Have you seen what a 6 week old baby looks like? Have you held one? Most of us have to drop that tiny child off to strangers and return to work, and we have had to pay out of pocket just to stay home with them for that short time. They do not sleep through the night. They are still breastfeeding. And then we return, in the negative balance, we are further penalized when we get sick, or when they get sick. Sending a mother of a six week old back to work to teach America’s youth, financially strapped, ridden with anxiety, exhaustion, isn’t just bad for that mother. It’s bad for everyone.

I’m sure I don’t have to point out the irony here. But I will. We dedicate our lives to taking care of other people’s children, we become second mothers to them, sometimes first. The system expects that from us, and we deliver. But when it comes time for us to do the bare minimum for our own children, the system forgets us, makes it impossible for us, tells us we are on our own.

This petition is not for me: I am done having children, but this needs to be changed for all of the mothers and fathers of our future.

There are close to 80,000 signatures for this petition. It has gained media attention, national attention, international attention. People are watching us, they are expecting more from us. Studies have shown time and time again that babies benefit immensely from being home with their mothers for the first year of life. The teachers of the DOE need more.. They deserve more time, they deserve to be paid for it. Why aren’t we fighting for them? Let’s not let them, or their children…who become our children…let’s not let any of them down.

We pay you our dues dutifully month after month, year after year. You are the only voice we have. We are here in numbers, 80,000 strong, demanding in the most polite way we know how, that you stop ignoring us, that you help us begin this fight, and don’t stop fighting for us until we make the situation right.

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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