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Chicago’s teachers union says the district reneged on extending parental leave

A woman speaks at a podium flanked by a man in a face mask and another woman.

Stacy Davis Gates speaks at a CTU press conference on COVID-19 safety mitigations before the Chicago Board of Education on Nov. 17, 2021. David Gates said this week that the school district is backing off a plan to update its parental leave policy this month.

Mauricio Peña / Chalkbeat

The Chicago Teachers Union and two mayoral candidates are calling out the school district and mayor’s office for not offering educators 12 weeks of paid parental leave, mirroring a policy recently rolled out to city workers. 

Chicago approved a new policy in September that lengthened parental leave for about 32,000 city employees from up to six weeks to 12 weeks starting Jan. 1 — a move Mayor Lori Lightfoot hailed as a “critical benefit, which undeniably builds equity within our workforce.” 

The teachers union said this week that it approached the district about revising its own family leave policy and worked with district officials on such an updated policy modeled after the city’s, which the union said was slated to go to the school board this month. But, according to the CTU, officials backed off from that plan in December, saying they need more time to prepare for the rollout of a new policy.  

“For the life of me, I don’t know why anyone would think retracting this would make sense,” said Stacy Davis Gates, the CTU’s president.

Now the union, along with mayoral candidates Kam Buckner and Brandon Johnson, a teachers union organizer, say they believe Lightfoot interfered to scuttle the parental leave expansion.

But in a statement, a district spokeswoman said Chicago Public Schools remains committed to updating its parental leave policy and officials are actively working on it. She denied that Lightfoot or anyone in her office has weighed in on the issue.

“CPS is taking the necessary time to review our policies to determine how to best support our team members who are new parents,” spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. 

She added, “Allegations that anyone outside of CPS has influenced the ongoing discussion are untrue and attempts to diminish the integrity of all parties involved in developing a strong policy.”

A spokesman for Lightfoot also stressed the mayor has not engaged with the school district about its leave policy. 

“The Mayor is proud that, under her leadership, the City has implemented one of the most progressive municipal parental leave policies in the country that applies to tens of thousands of employees,” the spokesman said in a statement. “While sister agencies are not subject to our parental leave policy, she has encouraged them to consider the same action.”

The union and district are gearing up to begin negotiations later this year over the teachers contract, which expires in 2024. In its statement, the district said benefits such as family leave are subject to collective bargaining agreement negotiations, which haven’t started yet. It’s not clear whether the district is suggesting that a new policy would have to be negotiated during contract talks and would only go into effect once a new contract is approved.

Fergus said a policy update would have to go through a 30-day public comment period and an equity review, among other steps.

Chicago is already an outlier for offering any paid leave to educators, according to data compiled by the National Council of Teacher Quality. Expanding paid leave for school staff is an issue teachers unions have been pushing for in recent years.

Still, Davis Gates said the current policy is “embarrassing” for a district with a predominantly female workforce in their childbearing years. The union won up to two weeks of leave and the ability to use short-term disability for members who qualify for it during contract talks in 2019. Now, Davis Gates said, teachers cobble together leaves using those benefits, saved-up sick and personal days, and unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.

Some teachers plan their pregnancies so they can be on leave during summer break; some go back to work before they are ready because of the financial strain of taking a longer leave without pay, Davis Gates said. 

Since November, she said, the district and union crafted a model leave policy and a FAQ for employees. 

“We were finally working cooperatively with our district on a policy that would give it a competitive edge to deal with teacher shortages, teacher recruitment, and teacher retention,” she said. “It was such a positive experience.”

The union has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for communication about the policy between the mayor’s office and the district in hopes of obtaining documents showing that Lightfoot intervened. Gates personally wrote to Lightfoot Thursday urging her to give the district the green light to grant its employees the same parental benefits that city employees now receive. 

The union is also collecting signatures on a petition calling on the city to extend parental benefits for educators. 

The mayor and the union have clashed throughout her first term and the union has made it clear they want to defeat her at the ballot box on February 28. 

At least two of Lightfoot’s challengers in next month’s election are also blasting her on the issue. Buckner said in a press release that he hoped the mayor “didn’t simply do a bait-and-switch with more than 20,000 CTU members.”

On Twitter, Johnson said the mayor had “derailed” the process of expanding parental leave for teachers, what he described as fresh evidence of the “disrespect” she has shown educators. He called 12 weeks of paid leave a “fundamental human right” and noted that he is a father of three and his wife has served as a doula.  

Mila Koumpilova is Chalkbeat Chicago’s senior reporter covering Chicago Public Schools. Contact Mila at mkoumpilova@chalkbeat.org.

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