Will SC teachers get paid parental leave like state employees? Here’s what’s proposed

Seven years into Greenville County middle school teacher Erin Rigot’s career, she was pregnant with her first child. She was due toward the end of the school year, but a doctor’s visit uncovered she had a form of preeclampsia and had to give birth about two months early.

Her child spent 47 days in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“I found myself constantly struggling with guilt,” Rigot said, speaking to a panel of South Carolina lawmakers this week. “I was ripped from my classroom two months earlier than planned, and I felt that I had betrayed my students and staff.”

She went on unpaid leave, allowed under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. But she and her husband faced the financial strain of her lost wages coupled with the bills for her and her child’s hospital stays and additional services after her child left the NICU.

“Paid parental leave would have enabled us to feel secure while balancing my responsibilities with my family at home, with my family at school,” Rigot said.

Now legislation is moving through the state House that would make South Carolina teachers and other full time school district employees throughout the state eligible for paid parental leave.

A House bill would require school districts to provide six weeks of paid parental leave for school employees who give birth. A school employee who is a co-parent would be eligible for up to two weeks of paid leave. The bill also would have six weeks of paid leave for the adoption of a child for the primary parent.

Two weeks of paid leave would be allowed for the co-parent of an adopted child and when a foster child is placed in someone’s care.

The legislation, H. 3908, was approved by a Ways and Means panel Tuesday and is slated for a vote in the full Ways and Means Committee Thursday.

Last year, lawmakers adopted up to six weeks of paid parental leave for state employees but did not include teachers because they are employees of individual school districts.

“The number one question was, ‘Why didn’t we get paid parental leave like state employees did?’” said Patrick Kelly, the director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. “This is something teachers want.”

Three school districts in the state, Rock Hill Schools, Spartanburg 5 and Florence 1, have adopted paid parental leave policies.

In Rock Hill, 19 teachers have taken advantage of the program this year, with nine more expected between April and June, said Tommy Schmolze, the Rock Hill Schools superintendent.

However, under the proposal, paying for the leave would be up to school districts, not the state.

With the potential of the unfunded mandate, school boards and school administrators asked the state to help pay for the cost of long-term substitute teachers who will be needed to fill in for educators.

“Some districts could absorb that cost. They have a higher local tax base. They could prioritize that,” said Debbie Elmore, the director of governmental affairs for the S.C. School Boards Association. “In some districts, we just don’t have any idea if they could absorb these costs. It’s going to depend on factors (such as) the number of staff who would take advantage of this.”

Because substitute teacher pay rates vary from district to district, providing paid leave would cost districts anywhere from $2,400 to $8,000 per occurrence, if an employee takes a maximum of 12 weeks off allowed under FMLA, according to the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office.

“State agencies do have the benefit of reallocating their workload amongst colleagues,” said Jennifer Miller, the chief financial officer for Lexington 1. “Unfortunately, we can’t do that in a school district. We have mandates on classroom ratio sizes, and so therefore we cannot move kids over to another teacher ... We will have to incur substitute cost for that.”

Proponents of the bill say providing paid parental leave would help ensure better outcomes for children and help recruit teachers and keep teachers in the profession amid a growing teacher shortage in the state.

“One of the number one reasons that I’ve seen my colleagues leave mid-year is because they have a child and have to make the hard choice between, ‘Do I care for my child or the children in my classroom?’ And they find no choice other than to care for their own child,” Kelly said. “This policy could reverse that.”