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Teacher With Cancer Must Pay for Substitute Out of Her Paycheck

A California elementary school teacher is inadvertently raising awareness (and generating outrage) about a statewide policy that requires the cost of a substitute to be deducted from the teacher’s pay if he or she requires long-term sick leave.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported Tuesday that a second-grade teacher from Glen Park Elementary School in San Francisco is on leave for the rest of the year due to her breast cancer diagnosis. According to California Education Code, if a teacher is absent from school due to illness or injury beyond their allotted 10 sick days a year, they will continue to receive a paycheck for up to five months minus the cost of a substitute teacher (even if no substitute teacher is employed).

The policy has been on the books since the 1970s. The average daily pay for a substitute teacher in California is $180, according to Indeed, and the average yearly salary for an elementary school teacher is $77,990, according to US News. That works out to the teacher receiving only about half their salary during the five months they’re on sick leave.

If a teacher needs more than five months of sick leave, they can utilize the “catastrophic sick leave bank,” in which other teachers can donate unused sick time, for up to 85 days. No substitute teacher pay is deducted.

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA), told ABC13 News, “We’d love to change it but we’re working under a public school system that’s been financially on starvation.”

Most California teachers aren’t eligible for state disability insurance since they don’t pay into it. The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) offers disability benefits for those who have a physical or mental disability that is permanent or expected to last at least 12 continuous months. The CTA offers a disability insurance plan that includes a “cancer benefit,” which offers up to $200 a month while you are disabled, for a maximum benefit of $1,000.

The Glen Park teacher’s school community started a GoFundMe for her to help offset her reduced salary and medical expenses, and raised $13,000.

According to Buzzfeed, the campaign page (which is now closed) described her as “a true professional who is dedicated to her craft.”

“Just a few days after her surgery, she took the time to write out 22 completely personalized notes to the students in the class thanking them for their support, telling them she missed them dearly and encouraging them to continue working hard,” the campaign said.

Restrictive medical leave policies for teachers have made headlines before — earlier this year, a history teacher in Alabama made headlines after his colleagues chipped in 100 sick days so he could be with his daughter who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Having a chronic condition or ongoing illness like cancer can leave you with a difficult dilemma: keep working and receiving a paycheck, while dealing with your symptoms – or take time off to focus on your health and risk losing money and possibly even your job. It’s a predicament Mighty contributor Claire Brumback faced as well. She wrote:

More often than not, chronically ill people are faced with the decision to either take care of themselves or keep their jobs. Of course, there are laws that protect disabled individuals. But, not all workplaces are required to give you paid time off, sick leave, etc. With some companies, if you aren’t at work, you don’t get paid, and if you don’t show up for a lot of your shifts, then you can get fired.

For more insight and support from those who have experienced the challenges of work and illness, check out these stories:

Getty photo by Pornpak Khunatorn