MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Imagine having to take time off work to get treatment for cancer. And then imagine having to pay for the person who fills in behind you. That's the situation a California public school teacher finds herself. In a 1976 state law requires her to pay for the substitute teacher who is taking her place. As more people hear about her story, momentum is growing to change that law. And more teachers are coming forward with similar stories. From member station KQED, Julia McEvoy reports.
JULIA MCEVOY, BYLINE: Heather Burns was teaching at an elementary school in San Francisco in 2016. She'd just had a second child, just bought a home with her husband.
HEATHER BURNS: I was doing a self-breast exam, and I felt a lump. And my mother, who is a retired nurse, was over the house a couple days later. And she said I definitely needed it get it checked out.
MCEVOY: It was stage two breast cancer. She needed surgery, radiation and possibly chemotherapy. Then Burns learned she would be responsible for paying her own substitute teacher while she was out on leave. It didn't really hit her until the first paycheck arrived.
BURNS: My paychecks were a thousand dollars a month take home.
MCEVOY: Less than half of her regular pay. Suddenly those house payments were out of reach. They'd saved and scrimped for the house down payment in one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. There was little left in savings.
BURNS: It's kind of one of those things that I'm sick. I just had surgery. I've just got diagnosed with breast cancer. My world is falling apart. And they just send me my paycheck, you know.
MCEVOY: Burns remembers how vulnerable she felt at the time, really unequipped to try and get information out of HR. San Francisco parent Amanda Kahn Fried is angry teachers are being treated this way. When she learned her school's teacher would have to pay for the sub while fighting cancer...
AMANDA KAHN FRIED: My jaw just dropped. I couldn't believe it. And I remained devastated that this is the law and this is, you know, something that teachers have been living with for decades.
CONNIE LEYVA: I think initially I would say, I'm sorry.
MCEVOY: Senator Connie Leyva heads California's education committee. Here's what she has to say to the state's teachers.
LEVYA: I'm sorry that we don't have a better system in place. But we're going to try to fix it. We couldn't help you, but we're going to try to fix it for future teachers.
MCEVOY: But it's complicated. California doesn't mandate full pay extended sick leave for any employer, much less cash-strapped public schools. Leyva is working with the California Teachers Association to figure out a solution. Eric Heins leads the association.
ERIC HEINS: It could be an easy change of just, you know, just eliminate the law. But then there's a lot of unintended consequences to that.
MCEVOY: He says without additional state funding, the schools would have to pick up the cost.
HEINS: And when I say it's about money, of course, when you're in an underfunded system, you're still robbing Peter to pay Paul.
MCEVOY: Heins says that's why the issue back ends into the larger narrative about how we as a nation value teachers. That issue is galvanizing educators from West Virginia to Oakland to strike for better pay. When Heather Burns returned to school that August, still reeling from her radiation treatments...
BURNS: The very first day I was there, my principal was really upset. And she said, I'm so sorry to tell you this, but you have a class size list of 41 students.
MCEVOY: Burns says she felt sick and she was depressed, but her family just couldn't live off half her paycheck anymore. For NPR News, I'm Julia McEvoy in San Francisco.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.