Teachers in crisis: NY educators demand paid parental leave

LOWER MANHATTAN — The headlines nationwide show that there's a crisis among teachers in many U.S. states. In the last three months alone, teachers statewide in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado and Arizona have all walked off the job in an effort to have their salaries raised for the first time since, in most cases, the Great Recession a decade ago.

In the tri-state, teacher compensation is among the highest in the country, but that doesn't mean that local educators are immune to the issues facing teachers elsewhere.

"I've worked at an afterschool program. I've worked directing shows at another school. I've worked at a tutoring program and I run a summer camp in the summers," Trisha Arnold said.

Her main job is being a fifth-grade special education teacher in Brooklyn.

Everything else, she said, is to make ends meet.

"You're working because you need to. You need to pay the bills. You need to survive," she said.

Arnold said her financial situation is challenging, even though she doesn't have any dependents.

Melody Anastasiou knows something about dependents. She's had to take leave from her job teaching fourth-grade special education in Staten Island in order to care for her 4-month-old daughter who has digestion and allergy issues.

"There are single parents out there" who are teachers, Anastasiou told PIX11 News. "They shouldn't have to worry about how they're going to pay their rent or their mortgage."

She's married to a fellow teacher who, for now, is the primary breadwinner for their family.

Even though they have a single income for the time being, PIX11 News did point out to her, and every educator we encountered for this story, that teacher salaries in New York State are, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the highest in the country.

"All of what you're saying is accurate," Anastasiou said. "However, the cost of living is higher as well."

In fact, New York State is nowhere near the top for pay, when adjusted for cost of living, in comparison to other major metropolitan areas. New York City teachers' salaries are even lower by comparison.

It's one reason that many teachers here are calling for changes to teacher compensation. However, their new request does not call for higher pay.

Instead, the centerpiece of the teachers union's interaction with Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration is paid parental leave, in which teachers would be guaranteed pay for a certain number of days each year if they have to take time off to care for children.

The city already provides that benefit for its 20,000 public service managers. It does not, however, provide it for its 75,000 teachers.

"We're not going to get to the next level, if we don't truly come up with a package that's going to help teachers want to stay here," United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew said.

The UFT in New York City is the country's largest municipal teachers union. Its president said that even though New York is not one of the places where teachers have felt they've had to walk out, "New York City has teacher shortages."

He said that the need is greatest in science and technology teaching, as well as in special education. Incentives like paid parental leave, he told PIX11 News, attract and keep teachers here.

For their part, de Blasio and the Department of Education have given teachers a contract that reimburses them for the years they went without a contract after the Great Recession. The current contract also has raised starting pay by 24 percent.

On the subject of paid parental leave, Freddi Goldstein, a de Blasio spokesperson said, in a statement:

“This administration cares deeply about ensuring the city's most dedicated public servants have the benefits they deserve, including paid parental leave. We're currently in discussion with the UFT over this very topic and hope to come to an agreement soon.”

Both sides agree on one thing: that education is an investment.

"This is it," Arnold said. "This is the future of our country, and that should be our top priority on all levels."