“In December of 2006 tragedy hit my family. My husband was diagnosed with a rare advanced cancer and he required immediate surgery and would undergo intense chemotherapy in Lebanon over the next year. During this time I was able to use the sick time I had accrued to care for him after the surgery and take him to his biweekly appointments.”
That is how her testimony to the Senate Committee began. In 2014, NEA-NH Executive Board Member Melissa Alexander started working on a crusade to ensure no other education professional would have to go through what she experienced.
Denied time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, FMLA, by her district in 2006, she suggested to the Executive Board that NEA-NH support legislation that would ensure education support professionals, ESP, have access to FMLA provisions.
Working with Scott McGilvray, President of NEA-NH at that time, and Representative Mel Myler, they conducted research and drafted a proposal.
They contacted Senator Shaheen’s office with the idea. No other state had such a plan and changing federal rules seemed a huge task. So they decided to work with State Senator Soucy in drafting and sponsoring a bill to reduce the number of hours needed to qualify for FMLA relief.
By December of 2007 the disease had advanced and he required additional surgeries and more frequent medical appointments. By this point my accumulated sick days were almost gone.
After contacting my employer (Monadnock Regional School District) to request time off to care for him I was given the paperwork for FMLA. I filled out the paperwork, submitted it, and then was denied FMLA because I did not meet the minimum requirements. I had not worked 1250 hours. As a paraprofessional my contracted time was 183 days, 7 hours a day totaling 1281 hours, however the earned sick time I had taken to care for him the prior year were deducted from the total hours making me ineligible.
I was terrified because I didn’t know what I would do. My husband was unable to drive himself to and from his appointments in Lebanon. My supervisor suggested that I request a leave of absence from the school board which they generously granted.
To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked 1250 hours in the preceding 12 months. NEA-NH proposed setting the eligibility level for hourly school employees at 900 hours in the previous 12 months. This would allow employees working 25 hours a week access to this important benefit.
Alexander was not the only one to testify that day. Letters from ESP’s across the state were presented into the record. NEA-NH testified that the bill would not cost the state or municipalities a dime, and would have brought peace of mind to many education support professionals.
The Family Medical Leave Act bill for ESPs was defeated along party lines in the New Hampshire Senate. “Ensuring access to FMLA for our paraprofessional members remains a priority for us,” said Megan Tuttle, NEA-New Hampshire President, after the defeat. “No one should face the prospect of losing their job because they or someone they love gets sick,” said Tuttle, “but due to cutbacks, many of our ESP members cannot work 1250 hours in a year even if they work every single hour they are scheduled. FMLA recipients are faced with serious medical conditions either for themselves or for a loved one. They shouldn’t have to add a fear of losing their benefits or job to their list of concerns.”
The prospect of paid family medical leave placed efforts to reduce FMLA eligibility hours on hold.
I was then notified that if I wanted to continue my health insurance while I was on leave I would need to pay the total premium cost of $1600 a month. At that point I was at a cross roads. My husband was unable to work, I needed to provide for my family, take care of my husband’s medical needs and we could not be without our health insurance.
Because I wasn’t afforded FMLA I was not able to take the leave to provide the emotional and physical support he needed. I rationed my remaining sick time and relied on family and friends to assist in providing the medical care he needed. I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to be by his side asking questions at his medical appointments, be by his side as he was vomiting during his chemotherapy, be home with him on the days he was too weak to get out of bed.
On March 1st his health declined significantly and he needed hospice care. At that point I made the choice to take unpaid time to be with him and risked getting a bill for the insurance if I was out for more than a month. On March 12, 2008 I lost my husband to the horrible disease. Thankfully I was able to be at his side during his last days.
Elections matter, and with majorities in the house and senate that looked more favorably on the idea, the bill was reintroduced in 2018 by Representative Schultz. It was passed by both chambers and signed into law as part of the state budget compromise this year.
So now, if you are a school district employee who has been employed for at least 12 months and has worked at least 900 hours in the previous 12-month period, you now are eligible to file for the FMLA coverage that many regular full-time employees have been able to access. Prior to the passage of this law, the minimum threshold for hours in a 12-month period had been 1250.
“I was so excited to hear this news,” said Alexander. “This is amazing! I’m so relieved that the wonderful, dedicated people who work in our schools can now get this benefit.”
If I had qualified for FMLA I would have been able to be at my husband’s side during this horrific and emotional time in our lives. He would not have had to hear the results of his tests without his wife beside him. I would have been able to hold his hand while he endured his 8 hour chemo treatments. I could have been there for him when he needed me the most. Education Support Professionals deserve to be eligible for FMLA based on the hours worked as school year employees.