Should a teacher who gives birth in spring be allowed to take paid maternity leave when school resumes in the fall? The Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments in such a lawsuit today.
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Should a teacher who gives birth in spring be allowed to take paid maternity leave when school resumes in the fall? The Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments in such a lawsuit today.

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SPRINGFIELD — Like many new mothers, Margaret Dynak wanted to stay at home with her baby for as long as possible, to soak up what she calls all “those precious moments," no matter how small, like the infant’s first smile.

Had Dynak, a teacher in suburban Chicago, given birth at almost any other time of the year, she might have been able to do that while also collecting paid sick time from her employer, Wood Dale School District 7.

But since Dynak’s baby arrived just before summer break, district officials didn’t allow her to use up to 30 days of paid leave when work resumed in August, according to a lawsuit filed on Dynak’s behalf by her union, the Illinois Education Association. As a result, Dynak lost about $8,000 in wages when she took 12 weeks off during the next school year, all unpaid, through the Family and Medical Leave Act, court records in the case state.

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Dynak’s case, which has the potential to affect parental leave policies for thousands of school employees across Illinois, reached the state Supreme Court on Wednesday, with both sides making oral arguments about whether the 30 days of paid sick leave must begin right after a birth or whether it starts on the soonest subsequent work day.

A state law entitling school employees to 30 days of paid sick leave for the birth or adoption of a child does not say whether the benefit must be used within a specific amount of time, but the Wood Dale school district has argued it does not apply after the lengthy summer break.

“The question, in this case, is whether paid sick leave is available for use four months after the birth of the child when neither the teacher, spouse, or child presents a medical issue that requires the teacher be absent," Superintendent John Corbett said in an emailed statement. "While the legislature is free to change the law, and the union is free to bargain for such a benefit, the present law does not support Ms. Dynak’s claim to paid parental leave, as the lower courts have held.”

Dynak, who teaches at Westview Elementary School in Wood Dale, did not attend the arguments in Springfield, reporting to her classroom instead. But on the eve of the hearing, she said she felt both nervous and hopeful the justices could help end the dispute, which started with the birth of her daughter in June 2016, and provide more clarity for the future.

Justices are expected to issue a ruling in the coming months.

“I just want to see that it’s resolved,” Dynak, 35 of Palatine, said by phone Tuesday night. “I want all teachers or anyone to be treated fairly with being able to get to use your time, your earned time that you have, so that you can spend it with your child.”

The situation that led to the lawsuit began in March 2016 when Dynak alerted her employer that she was scheduled to have a C-section on June 6 and that she wanted to apply her paid sick time for the following school year. School ended with a half day on June 7, and Dynak had accumulated 71 paid sick days over her years working at the district, according to the lawsuit.

Corbett told Dynak she could use 1.5 days of sick time for the birth to make up for the days in June but that she wouldn’t be allowed to transfer the paid sick time to the next school year, the lawsuit states. When Dynak took 12 weeks of unpaid leave using FMLA at the start of the new school year, she was docked 58 days of pay, the lawsuit said. Had she been able to apply her paid sick time, she would only have lost out on 29.5 days of pay. Teachers typically receive paychecks during the summer, if they choose to have their wages divided evenly among the calendar months, though are not considered to be working.

Before Dynak’s case reached the Illinois Supreme Court, judges in DuPage County and the appellate court ruled against her.

In a majority opinion issued this summer, Second District Appellate Justice Joseph Birkett wrote it was unreasonable for Dynak to be eligible for paid sick leave after having ample time to recover and bond with her child during the 10-week summer break.

Birkett wrote that the “triggering event” for the benefit is the arrival of a child.

“In its wisdom, the legislature decreed that an employee is entitled to a 30-work-day leave for the event of a birth, and, as with illness-related leave, divorcing the leave from the triggering event would render the provision absurd," Birkett wrote.

But in a dissenting opinion, Appellate Judge Donald Hudson wrote that his colleagues misinterpreted the statute and in doing so imposed additional restrictions on the language. The law, he wrote, does not mention any exception to the 30-day rule for summer break and should not prevent an employee from utilizing the paid sick time during work days, even if the days are not consecutive.

At the Supreme Court on Wednesday, IEA attorney Ryan Thoma presented his case first, underscoring the fact that the paid sick leave provision of the Illinois School Code does not require employees to take the leave within a specified time period. The law, he said, entitles Dynak to use paid leave at any reasonable time, as long as it relates to the birth of her child.

“She did not lose that right based on the happenstance of when her child was born, and she does not lose that right by any intervening period of non-work days, whether that be summer break in this case or whether that be spring break, winter break or another holiday period,” Thoma said Wednesday.

Adam Dauksas, an attorney representing the school district, rejected that notion and warned that school districts could be inundated with absurd requests to take paid sick leave weeks, months or years after childbirth if the statute is interpreted too broadly.

“The school district’s argument ... is that sick leave must be used at a time when an employee is unable to attend work because of the birth, or illness or other qualifying event,” Dauksas said. “That is, sick leave use must be tethered to the event causing the need to be absent from work. It can’t be delayed 10 weeks or 10 months later down the road.”

Even when this case is over, Dynak’s fight might not be. Dynak has since given birth to another child who was born over the summer break. That led to another lawsuit against District 7, which is pending in circuit court, according to an IEA spokeswoman.

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