Bill would guarantee paid parental leave for SC teachers, school employees

The bill would make the state the first state in the southeast to guarantee public school employees statewide, including teachers, receive paid leave.
Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 9:59 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 30, 2023 at 10:44 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Lawmakers at the State House are advancing a bill they say will boost South Carolina’s efforts to recruit and retain teachers at a time the state’s educator shortage is growing.

It would make South Carolina the first state in the southeast to guarantee public school employees statewide, including teachers, receive paid leave when they welcome a new child.

Last year, South Carolina started offering paid family leave to state employees.

But a bipartisan group of more than 30 lawmakers says that work isn’t done and are sponsors of legislation to expand that by next school year to people who work in public school districts.

The proposed change would have been a huge help to Erin Rigot, who had been teaching in Greenville Schools when she was pregnant in 2019.

“I felt kind of naïve looking back on that. I kind of assumed the state took care of its teachers,” she said.

Severe health problems forced Rigot to go on leave two months earlier than she had planned during her pregnancy.

Then after her son was born, he spent 47 days in the NICU.

Rigot exhausted all her vacation days, sick days, and federal disability and medical leave before going more than three months without a paycheck.

“It wasn’t nearly enough to get us through that time that was already stressful with a baby in the NICU, but then you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to pay your bills,” Rigot said.

“This bill would’ve at least given her another six weeks of buffer,” Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens and the lead sponsor of H.3908, said.

The bill would provide six weeks of paid leave for school employees who give birth and for those who are the primary caregivers for adopted children.

Parents who don’t give birth, who adopt but aren’t the primary caregiver, and who foster could get two weeks.

School employees could take this time within 12 months of the birth, adoption, or foster, so they would still be guaranteed their full paid leave if that happened over summer break.

Parents who take paid leave wouldn’t have that time off count against the time they need to work to reach their next step on the teacher pay scale, which is based on experience and education.

“This is a guaranteed win for teacher recruitment and retention in South Carolina. It will help us recruit from other states,” Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said. “When PSTA surveyed our members about different policies that could help retain teachers, this was right at the top, up there with pay increases and reduced class sizes.”

Groups including the state school boards association told a House panel they have some concerns with the bill because it does not provide districts with any additional money to implement this mandate.

But Collins notes districts have a combined $1.5 billion in reserves available to them right now.

Figures from Fiscal Year 2022 audit reports show districts’ unassigned fund balances ranged from just over $1 million in Florence School District Two to nearly $208 million in Greenville County Schools.

“I can’t think of a better bang for your buck than having paid parental leave,” Collins said.

Four South Carolina school districts currently offer paid parental leave for teachers or employees: Florence 1, Rock Hill, Spartanburg 5, and Spartanburg 6.

A representative from Rock Hill, the state’s 13th-largest of more than 70 traditional districts, told lawmakers during a hearing for the bill that it had set aside $117,000 in its budget to cover paid leave costs this year.

Rigot said in those districts that don’t offer this leave yet, it is common for staff to take unpaid time after they bring a child into their family.

“At the end of the day, if we’re going to be a family-first state, then teachers need to have that ability as well,” she said.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted unanimously to advance this bill Thursday, so it now awaits a debate on the House floor.

A similar bill has been filed in the state Senate as well, but that one only guarantees leave for teachers and not for all school staff as the House bill does.