Thursday, February 22, 2007

Making Taking Parental Leave Difficult **UPDATED**

I am hopping mad. And it's probably not worth reading about because it's long and involved and incorporates a lot of details. Feel free to join me in my anger and frustration, though, if you're so inclined.

I work for a school district as a teacher. You'd think that working for an employer whose focus is on what's best for children, there would be some flexibility for parenting. And there is some-- but not much. And I can't say that's my school district's fault-- after all, they can't really help it that schools are structured so that a teacher can't take an hour off in the middle of the day on Tuesday to go to a doctor's appointment or her child's therapy appointment. At least if that appointment is weekly. I can't just have someone cover "second period" for me every week. And my school district is pretty aware of these things-- and accommodating-- they provide for classroom teachers to get hourly-based substitute coverage to attend things like their children's parent-teacher conferences and doctor's appointments and IEP meetings. So in that sense I suppose they are pretty progressive.

But when it comes to parent leave, they are awful. They've gotten better in terms of the amount of time off they offer-- but they are terrible at instituting their policies.

In a school district with literally thousands of employees-- in fact, probably over a thousand teachers, you'd think they'd have they'd have their act together. Particularly given that the majority of the certificated staff (teachers) are women, and parent leave is something that tends to affect women more often or more dramatically than it affects men (given that women are the ones birthing). But no. Let's just take one example. Okay. It's me. I'm the example.

Now I'm a little unusual, I admit, because I didn't give birth to my children. Which makes me more like a man under the system than a woman (in terms of leave and benefits and all of that). My district has what I think is a pretty generous paid-leave policy. I was able to take 20 days at full pay from my sick leave. If I didn't have 20 days of sick leave banked, they would have paid me my full pay minus substitute pay (nevermind the fact that I'm not actually in the classroom teaching right now and therefore don't need a substitute-- that's their policy). I can live with that.

On top of the 20 days at full pay, under FMLA, I'm entitled to take an additional 2 months of leave without pay-- 12 weeks total. And I did just that with Marcie.

Before I left for China, I wrote a letter to the school district and explained that I was adopting a child and would be leaving for China before the school year began. Even before I wrote the formal letter, I called the benefits specialists and my HR technician frequently. I'm pretty sure that despite the fact that there are thousands of employees, they know me by name. And that's not a good thing.

Anyway, after I returned from China, I made an appointment to go in and talk to the benefits specialists. At this meeting, I explained that I was taking unpaid leave because I'd just adopted a child (who I had with me in tow). I explained that I wanted to continue paying into my flex spending account even though it would be after taxes, and she told me they would look into it. I completed the necessary paperwork to add our daughter to our benefits, they calculated how much I'd have to write a check for during my leave, and I set off on my merry way.

In the parking lot, I just happened to run into the Director of Human Resources-- a man I very much like and admire. And we started chatting, and I mentioned the amount of money I'd be paying, mentioned the phrase "FMLA" and was met with a strange expression. It turned out that the amount they were going to charge me was a COBRA payment-- the same payment I'd make if I were going on unpaid leave, as in a personal leave of absence. But under FMLA, the district would continue covering my medical benefits, and we'd only have to pay the family portion. This was a pretty substantial difference in sum-- several hundred dollars. Maybe $600. So I was glad to have bumped into him and have the conversation.

At the end of my paid leave, I got a bill in the mail for benefits. It was for the correct amount. I did not get a bill in the mail for my flex accounts, and I figured there must have been some reason for that-- like I wasn't allowed to put after-tax money into the account, and then I thought no more of it.

Near the end of my unpaid leave, I received a letter in the mail explaining that I might qualify for unemployment benefits. This utterly confused me-- how could I accept unemployment when I wasn't terminated? I was just on FMLA leave. That didn't make sense. I figured it was a mistake and didn't follow up.

I returned to work after my 12 week absence in mid-November. But at the end of November, I didn't get any pay direct deposited into my account. I thought that was odd, but perhaps the direct depositing stopped during the 8 weeks I hadn't received any pay, so I called my Payroll Technician. She looked me up in the system and then informed me she forgot to file my payroll paperwork. Forgot. Uh. Hello? Isn't that what you DO for a living? File payroll? Either you don't have that many people who you have to restart a filing for and therefore should not forget-- or you have to restart for multiple people, in which case there really isn't an excuse for letting me slip through the crack. Either way, not what I would call competent.

She told me not to worry, though, because I'd get the amount past due in my December paycheck. Yup. Seriously. DECEMBER. Fortunately the December paycheck actually comes in mid-December, so I only had to wait an additional two weeks-- but after receiving no income for 8 weeks, I have to admit that extra two weeks hurt.

Ok. So in December, no direct deposit. I call up my payroll technician again. This time she explains that because my paychecks were stopped, I have to start the process all over again-- resubmit for direct deposit. I ask if that means they also stopped my contributions to my retirement fund. Yup. They did.

So why didn't I get some documentation explaining to me that just prior to returning from FAMILY leave I should:
  1. call them and remind them to submit my payroll once I returned to work (which I'm not sure would have helped-- the irony here is that they called me to verify that I had returned to work on time, which means they have a record of when I returned to work!)
  2. go in and refill out my direct deposit requests
  3. go in and refill out my retirement requests
You would think that with the number of employees they have on leave, they'd have a simple form letter they could send women and men planning to return from work after a short period of unpaid leave! And if they aren't going to have a form, why, why, why wouldn't they share this information with an employee?

So that doesn't end the saga. Because my November money was not included in my December paycheck either. Of course I couldn't ask anyone about it because the offices were closed for the second half of December. So in January, when I returned to work, I called and inquired as to missing money. Interested in the explanation? Here goes-- instead of taking the 14 days I worked in November (or whatever it was) and multiplying them by my daily rate, then adding them to my December paycheck, they took the total number of days I would be working for the remainder of the school year and divided them by the total number of remaining paychecks. In other words, I won't actually get paid for some of the work I did in November until June. It means they are earning interest off my earned income.

And of course the saga doesn't end there.

When I met with our benefits coordinator while out on the paid portion of my family leave, I explained that I wanted to continue my flexible spending account payments, even with after-tax dollars, because I wanted to resume the account upon return to school. (We've calculated that money to help pay Casey's speech therapy, and so we've been more or less counting on it.)

So yesterday I submitted my reimbursement request for our flexible spending for the year. Before leave I only paid a portion of the total requested amount. And they didn't end up collecting any money while I was on leave. Nor did they give me the option of resuming payment upon return-- and everything was so convoluted when I returned to work. Remember it wasn't until December that I even knew they had stopped my retirement benefits and flex spending, and by then the school year was over. So I thought I had until March 15th to submit my claims.

But lo and behold, today I received a denial in the mail because, as the letter explains:

Per the contractual agreement with __________ School District, we were only able to accept expenses for 30 days following your termination from the Plan. This Grace Period to submit expenses ended 10-31-06; your request was faxed 2-20-07.

Huh? What contractual agreement? I didn't sign any contractual agreement. I certainly didn't "terminate from the plan." So I assume this is the agreement between the flexible spending people and my school district. But why did I receive no documentation-- nothing in writing or in e-mail, not even a phone call-- explaining when my grace period was going to end. Come to think of it, if I had received that might even know that I was terminated in the first place!

So being the law student that I am, I looked it up, of course. And I discovered that under Prop. Treas. Reg. § 1.125-3 (that's a treasury regulation), my employer was required to provide me the option to suspend the flexible spending during my FMLA leave and permit me to resume it upon my return. Did they do that? No. Even if they'd actually offered an option to suspend (which they didn't, because I would have declined it, actually), I certainly never received an offer to resume it after my return. HECK, they didn't even offer to PAY me after I returned-- how could I expect them to resume my flex.

And that brings me to another question, actually. The letter stated that my grace period ended in October. But I didn't actually begin the unpaid portion of my FMLA until September 26th. They imply that they are being nice by "extending" it to the end of October, but I wasn't a terminated employee-- I was on FMLA. How can they "terminate" me when I'm on federally-protected leave?

Do you sense my mounting frustration? And now, armed with this knowledge, what can I possible do about it? The money is with the flex people-- and they claim they have a contract with my school district so they don't have to reimburse me. It's the school district that messed up, but they don't hold on to the money. So who's responsible to reimburse me? And is violation of such a regulation grounds for the opportunity to receive reimbursement? It is, after all, my freaking money, not theirs. They shouldn't have counted on it in the first place-- I'm not in the habit of just giving away money. Geesh. Am I likely to have this flex money issue resolved in a way that gives me any financial relief? Sadly, no. It's just not likely. I'm a lowly, single employee screwed by the bureaucracy and incompetence of a pretty big system. And even though I'm fairly confident my flex money frustration is grounded in legal justification, it just doesn't matter.

That's so sad.

Oh. One more thing. My district is also archaic in that teachers are only paid 10 months of the year. If we want to receive payments for 12 months, we have to opt into that system (which is fine since technically we're calendared to work only 10 months). But the kicker is that during the two summer months, we have to pick up our paychecks because they claim they can't do direct deposit. I find that hard to believe, but whatever. Well, apparently because I went on an 8-week unpaid leave (the FMLA), they automatically switched me to 10-pay. They claim they have to do that. It's still not clear to me why (they gave me an explanation, but I find it wholly unpersuasive-- it's sheer laziness on their part. But heck, given the size of the organization and the fact that it's not all done automatically by computer, I guess I understand them not wanting a zillion different arrangements). Anyway, that would have been a nice piece of information to have. So I was supposed to put aside money to live on this summer from my last two paychecks. Oops.

And lest you think I'm a totally idiot (I mean, how could you not recognize that much extra money in your paycheck), 1. remember that all my paychecks have been totally different as they've prorated my work schedule, 2. because I moved to year 11 on the payscale, my pay was supposed to jump substantially this year, and 3. I though my December paycheck was big because they were paying me back for November, not because they were no longer paying me over 12 months! I know. Excuses, excuses.

Ok. So here ends my tirade. But I'm not letting this go. If you have suggestions for how I can calmly approach the situation to get my several hundred dollars, I'd love to hear them. . .

And I'm thinking of writing a big long letter explaining what a horrible system they have set up-- my personal feelings aside, they really should offer better service to their employees, and it'd be SO FREAKING simple to do so (okay that's the second time I've used the word "freaking." Sorry 'bout that). Think it's worth it? Should I wait until after the school year is over (I'll be taking an extended, 2-year leave after this year and I'm not sure I'll return after it.).

So I decided that instead of being all huffy about this issue, I would do some information gathering first. I called the flexible spending company, and they explained that were I reported as on Family Medical Leave (under FMLA) instead of terminated, I would be able to access the money I contributed prior to my leave for services provided prior to my leave.

Of course, this means I need my school district to contact the Flex company and actually admit they made an error and incorrectly reported me as terminated instead of on FML.

I've left e-mails with all possible relevant parties and e-mailed them, as well as their direct supervisor to see if we can't avert catastrophe and resolve the problem. Of course we're working against a deadline now-- they have to fix the error before the March 30th deadline for me to still have access to the funds? Think it will work?

I'm feeling a little optimistic about it. I mean it just takes a phone call or an e-mail to clarify the mistake, right?


Jodie said...

OMG! Reading your post makes ME want to scream! It all sounds confusing to me(you explained it very well--I haven't had enough coffee yet), but you have to get your money back! It sounds as if your district office personnel are a bit confused by the system too. Maybe writing a letter to the people who are holding your money might get the ball rolling? Ugh! You shouldn't have to put so much energy into fixing a huge mistake made by the people whose JOB it is to file paperwork and keep things in order!! Maybe you should call the people who sent that letter and ask to speak to whoever is in charge.

Ron and Julie said...

What a fiasco! I wouldn't wait at all lest they use that as an excuse to drag their feet later. Can you give them a time-line? Say, five days until they notify the flex company before you go to the labor commission or whoever for your city handles the fair and nondiscriminatory practices for employees. It is a ridiculous situation. I hope you are getting the names of every boob you have talked to.