Boston teacher Neema Avashia is the proud mom of a 10-month-old daughter. She's also one of the first educators in Boston to benefit from parental leave that’s paid.

A recent change in her union contract gave her five months of compensated time off to care for her new baby.

“I was lucky,” Avashia said of the timing. “Prior to that change, most people, the way you took parental leave was using sick days.”

Sick leave is paid time off, but pregnancy isn’t considered an illness. In many Massachusetts cities and towns right now, educators face patchwork systems for parental leave that require using paid sick time or short-term disability to have or adopt a child. That arcane practice is starting to change.

Paid parental leave has been ratified in many newly signed teacher contracts since the pandemic, in a growing number of Massachusetts school districts including Boston, Somerville, Quincy, Canton and others.

“We believe that everyone deserves paid parental leave, and that's parental leave for whether that's a mother or father, gay, lesbian couples for parents who have a new child, or they've adopted,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Max Page said. “This is sort of a basic right in many countries and should be a basic right in this country.”

When sick time isn't enough

Right now, at least half a dozen states are ahead of Massachusetts when it comes to a statewide paid parental leave policy for educators, including Delaware, New Jersey and Washington.

Research has shown that paid leave can help improve health outcomes for the child and the mother. Psychologists say the benefit can reduce financial stress, allow parents to focus on bonding and increase gender equality.

Massachusetts educators have typically relied on accumulated sick time and personal days negotiated by teachers’ unions. But if a teacher is new to the profession and hasn’t accumulated sick time through seniority, a pregnancy or adoption can mean sacrificing months of pay.

Change is coming in some towns. Lauren Mahan, president of the Canton Educators Association, said educators, including support staff in her suburban district, are now receiving 12 weeks of paid time off using sick time and gained an additional 20 paid days independent of their sick time. Educators can supplement that with additional time off to extend their leave, but it’s unpaid.

“We got an outstanding parental leave package,” Mahan said. “The school committee acknowledged that we educators didn't have a good package.”

The part of the contract using sick time to stretch out a leave is also only contractually available to women giving birth.

“You can only use the time if you're deemed ‘medically incapacitated,’” Mahan said. “And the definition of that in our contract is 12 weeks after giving birth.”

Page said thousands of educators and municipal employees are exempt from the state’s Paid Family Medical Leave program, or PFML, because it doesn’t cover municipal workers, including public school teachers.

There is also no financial relief under the federal Family Medical Leave Act, which gives new parents 12 weeks off under the law, but does not require employers to pay.

Page said the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a powerful state lobby, resisted efforts to include educators and other local government workers in the state’s Paid Family Medical Leave Act, which passed in 2018.

Candace Pierce, a spokeswoman for the association, said most of the districts' sick time benefits are more generous and a better benefit than the PFMLA.

“Every city and town must have the ability to assess their own situation and determine whether the PFML is something that would benefit their community and its employees,” she said.

An 'antiquated' problem

Without a statewide policy for parental leave for municipal workers, sometimes rules are discretionary and left to each town.

In Wellesley, Kyle Gekopi, president of the educators union, said they have also made progress in the effort to secure parental leave.  Any member who qualifies for FMLA can take 12 weeks of paid time off using sick days. But the first five days of leave is paid for all members thanks to a common bank that pools sick days.

Wellesley's union also created a new program allowing members who have no compensation for time off to get interest-free loans through the union.

 "If they can pay us back, great.  And if not, it's a gift," he said. "That's something that we had to design ourselves."

The teachers union in Boston negotiated a recent contract in 2022 to allow 12 weeks of partial or fully paid parental leave, depending on seniority. The language of the contract is also gender neutral. Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang called it a step forward.

“I do think it's a really antiquated and problematic fact that educators don't have better parental leave policies, not just in Massachusetts, but across the nation,” Tang said.

For Tang, it was a passionate personal issue. In 2019, Tang suffered a stillborn birth during contract negotiations. She and her team negotiated full pay for Boston educators for four weeks of maternity leave. Teachers receive 75 percent of their pay for the next four weeks, and half of what they would have earned up to 12 weeks. The 12 weeks is available to all members and the language is gender neutral, and it applies to adoptive parents, foster parents and those women who experience a stillbirth.

Baby steps towards progress

The new BPS parental leave policy was a game changer for Avashia in Boston. Both she and her partner, also a BPS teacher, were eligible for the full 12 weeks, without diminishing their sick time benefits.

Avashia said she the change acknowledges what new parents may go through, from postpartum depression to chronic sleep deprivation.

“We are kidding ourselves if we think that a teacher who just gave birth two months ago is mentally in any shape to be in a classroom in front of students and is going to be able to do a good job,” she said. “That's just not possible.”

A woman pushed two young girls in swings.
Norfolk Public Schools literacy specialist Libby Longley with her two daughters, Annie and Lydia, ages 2 and 3 in her backyard.
Courtesy of Libby Longley

Libby Longley, a literacy specialist at a Norfolk elementary school, recalled learning that there was no paid maternity leave in her district several years ago, just as she and her husband started planning a family.

“[I was] beyond shocked. And even women I worked with didn't believe it either,” Longley said. “I had to keep repeating, no, we do not get four weeks or six weeks. We use our sick time from the day you go into the hospital, and you give birth. That's it. That's your maternity leave”

Longley lobbied her union and spoke at a hearing about her personal experience. In the latest three-year contract passed this year, the union negotiating committee won two weeks paid parental leave from the Norfolk School District.

It’s a victory, albeit a small one, Longley said. And it came too late to help her. Her daughters are now ages 2 and 3.

“So right now, in our contract, we have two weeks of paid maternity leave outside of our sick time, which felt like a huge win,” she said.

For many districts, it’s baby steps.