Sick-leave change hurt, plaintiff says

‘Bank’ of donated days is no longer available

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Sarah Staebell started vomiting just before Thanksgiving 2012, the nausea so unrelenting it frightened her 3- and 5-year-old boys. Initially mystified doctors found the source, ultimately diagnosing the 39-year-old elementary school teacher with stage 4 metastasized colon cancer.

A Northeast Elementary School teacher since 1999, Staebell’s cancer forced her to stop teaching in early December to undergo chemotherapy. Her tumors now are shrinking, and doctors recently cleared her to return to the classroom in August — a day for which Staebell hardly can wait.

“I’m missing my kids a lot,” she said.

She’s not so excited about returning to work for the Douglas County School District, which she feels deprived her of a benefit she not only needed, but already had earned.

“That’s where I’m nervous,” she said. “I love my community and I’m going to stick it out for them. But I am worried about all the politics and stress.”

Staebell is among the plaintiffs in the Douglas County Federation of Teachers’ class-action lawsuit against the district, which seeks compensation for dissolution of a sick-leave bank, and alleges unfair hiring practices.

Because litigation is pending, DCSD won’t comment on the lawsuit.

The district’s longstanding collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union expired in 2012 after negotiations between the two sides failed. With its expiration, union officials say they lost 10,000 sick-leave days teachers had donated to the bank over the course of many years.

Those were intended for use in cases of long-term illnesses, available to teachers like Staebell who’d used all their own sick leave days.

DCSD added a short-term disability benefit in late 2012, which Staebell used. But it covered only 70 percent of her paycheck, she said, and didn’t cover contributions to the Public Employees Retirement Association as sick-leave bank days would have.

If the collective bargaining agreement still were in effect, Staebell said she could have used 48 of the banked days, receiving her full salary and benefits — including PERA.

After using those 48 days, Staebell then likely would have applied for long-term disability. That benefit, which she progressed to after using her short-term disability insurance, covers about 60 percent of her paycheck.

DCSD spokeswoman Cinamon Watson pointed out that the 70-percent, short-term disability coverage is tax-free, “and could very easily equal 100 percent of an employee’s pay.”

In a May 2013 letter to DCSD families, Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen addressed what she called a “myth” that DCSD took away the sick-leave bank, leaving employees with no options during medical crises.

“DCSD had a sick-leave bank that was not properly funded and not budgeted,” Fagen wrote. “With our commitment to a healthy budget, DCSD worked to fix this by implementing a funded and budgeted short-term disability benefit for all employees. This benefit gives employees tax free dollars during a challenging time.”

Union officials say they didn’t agree to the replacement of the sick-leave bank with short-term disability, alleging the district “acted unilaterally” in doing so and calling it an “inferior” benefit.

Under the union agreement, Staebell said there also was room to negotiate with the district for additional sick-leave bank days.

“Before, you were a person and you could negotiate,” she said. “Now, it’s like a machine. You’re just put into the system and you have to go.”

In its complaint, the DCFT is asking the district to reinstate a sick-leave bank, and pay back benefits to Staebell and others who recently would have tapped into it.

“A district she and these other teachers devoted their careers to has left them high and dry,” union vice president Courtney Smith said. “It shouldn’t be this way.”