What does 90 sick days really mean?
The concept, on its surface, often creates a reactionary spasm of disapproval in the community and online. Warwick Public School teachers get 90 sick days every year, as outlined in Section IX of the last iteration of their collective bargaining agreement.
To many, the concept is alien and excessive. However, what does this policy entail beyond the surface, and are the teachers getting a bad rap for unfair reasons?
“We don’t have short-term and long-term disability coverage,” said Warwick Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh. “We have the 90 days. That’s 90 days for if you're out sick, on maternity leave, if you have to take kids home sick, or even if you have catastrophic illness, like cancer.”
Netcoh said that the 90 sick days provision of the teachers’ contract has been included since before she came to the district in 1990 and that it has been brought up as a discussion point during contract negotiations in the past, but has been deferred on due to there not being a viable replacement policy proposed yet.
Article IX of the most recent contract declares that only 70 of the 90 days provide payment to teachers at a guaranteed, full-time rate. Any sick days taken after 70 days will be held off on being paid out until the end of the school year in June, when deductions are taken out and then the remaining balance is paid. Deductions are calculated using a formula, also outlined in the contract, which comes into play after a “sick pool” of money – which is budgeted for prior to the beginning of each school year and is used to pay substitute replacement teachers – has been spent.
To get the amount of deductions each teacher must pay out of their salary at the end of a school year, you take the amount of money that was spent by the district on substitutes, subtract that by the budgeted amount of money they had allocated to pay substitutes, multiplied by the number of days absent by the individual teacher. This number is then divided by the number of total absences by all teachers to get the individual deduction.
Using this formula, teachers who rarely take sick days will pay next to nothing at the end of the year if the sick pool is used up – Superintendent Philip Thornton said on Monday that last year teachers paid $18 per sick day – while those who have suffered a chronic illness or required maternity leave will feel a significant hole in one of their paychecks at the end of the school year.
Some argue that these deductions are part of the story that is missed by outsiders who scoff at the concept of having 90 sick days.
One of those people is Allison Sgambato, whose mother Barbara Morrocco taught first grade for many years at Warwick Neck Elementary School before being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2004. She would fight the illness for over 10 years, eventually succumbing to the disease in 2015.
“I guess people don't think of the need for short-term disability until the need arises, and by then it's too late,” Sgambato said.
Sgambato said that, although her mother fought hard to stay in the classroom during her treatment, by the end of her career (she retired in 2011) she was missing substantial time and leaning on those 90 sick days heavily.
“Many years toward the end of her career she was out a substantial amount of time,” she said. “So there were days where my mom was out sick with terminal cancer and she not only didn't get paid for sick days, but she wound up owing the school department thousands of dollars.”
Sgambato said that the deduction payments hit her family hard during the last years of her mother’s life, as the only pay coming into the house was from her father, as she and her sister were going through college.
“This was a huge part of the end of my mom's career and the end of my mom's life,” she said. “I can't stress enough how upsetting it was for her.”
Superintendent Thornton mentioned on Monday – following a hearing in Superior Court where a judge granted a temporary restraining order to prevent teachers from using their sick days en masse as a form of protest regarding the current lack of a teachers contract – that the teachers’ union had rejected a last offer from the school committee that reduced the number of sick days to 18 and would have implemented a “sick bank” for long-term coverage, encompassing things like maternity and chronic illness.
Netcoh said that this offer was disingenuous and possibly a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), because it would require a board, consisting partially of fellow teachers, to approve or deny the sick bank requests from their colleagues.
Comparatively, both Cranston and Coventry include a high number of sick days, which double as short-term and long-term disability coverage for their teachers. Coventry has 80 days allotted and Cranston has 75, with another category of sick days specifically for use in long-term illness situations.
“We're really not an outlier when you break everything down into the components,” Netcoh said.
It remains to be seen which way the independent arbitrator Michael Ryan will lean when his findings come out sometime this month in regards to sick leave policy. A combined total of 867 Warwick teachers took a combined 12,292 sick days last school year. Of those teachers, 32 were out 70 or more days (3 percent).