Public school employees in Long Beach are asking for leave from their jobs at a record rate, according to the Long Beach Unified School District.

Over the past few months, leave requests to deal with family and medical issues have skyrocketed as support staff, teachers and other employees struggle with finding childcare or worry about their exposure to the still raging COVID-19 pandemic, officials with the district and local teachers union said.

At the last six meetings of the LBUSD’s Board of Education, a total of 339 requests for leave have been heard and approved. That’s up from 66 in the same span of meetings last year. The board approved 236 leave requests in October this year as opposed to 11 in October of 2019.

“It’s a big uptick,” said Chris Callopy, executive director of the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB).

The bulk of the leave requests are being made under the Emergency Family Medical Leave Act, an emergency supplement to the Family Medical Leave Act, which is federal legislation passed in 1993 that allows for up to 12 weeks of leave to provide care for family members. The Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act was passed this year and took effect on April 1 to help families dealing with a lack of childcare during the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the expansion, families can get up to 12 weeks of leave if a “minor child’s school or childcare is closed due to COVID-19,” per the LBUSD HR website. Most of the leave is paid at a reduce rate based on the employee’s normal compensation. 

“We know that childcare scheduling can be complicated, so we’re providing flexibility,” said LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou.

Eftychiou also said that while the district has had a larger number of employees than usual request leaves, part of the reason for the elevated numbers is that some employees request leave more than once. Not all requests are for the full 12 weeks allowed.

“Some needed one week here or one week there,” said LBUSD human resources head David Zaid.

Because of the medical nature of the request, employees seeking FMLA or EFMLA leaves do not have their names listed publicly, and Eftychiou said the district did not have a number available of total employees who have requested leave.

Most of the requests, 270 of them, came from classified and exempt employees such as recreation aides, childcare workers, special education support staff, custodians, nutritional service workers and others. These employees had a longer, harder fight with the district to gain workplace flexibility, and when they spoke to the Board of Education, lack of childcare options with the schools closed was their biggest concern.

The rest of the requests, 69, came from certificated staff, primarily teachers and counselors.

TALB won the right for workplace flexibility shortly before the school year started, allowing teachers to work from home, which has provided a Band-Aid fix for childcare for many of the district’s teachers.

Callopy, the TALB executive director, said that in previous years it would be rare to see a teacher request leave after the school year has started. “Normally the FMLA comes into play around August and then very rarely and randomly during the school year,” he said.

Callopy added that the reasons he’s heard for teachers filing for leave go beyond just a lack of childcare.

“It’s a mixed bag, split roughly into three buckets,” he said. “One, folks are not doing well with exorbitant hours trying to spin up their brick and mortar into a virtual space. We get reports of people working 12-14 hour days and still trying to be parents. Two, childcare is an ongoing problem and there’s nothing available or affordable. Three, a number of our members have children who are at high risk for exposure.”

The emergency FMLA expansion will expire on Dec. 31, which will leave teachers and other families in a difficult spot with schools not set to reopen widely in the LBUSD until at least Jan. 28.

Eftychiou said that while there has been a larger number of teachers and employees requesting leave, it hasn’t overwhelmed the district’s substitute capacity.

“For longer-term leaves of 20 consecutive work days or more, we provide a long-term substitute,” said Eftychiou. “We have been able to fill those spots, so that’s not a problem.”

The Long Beach Unified School District employs 12,000 people, making it the city’s largest workforce, and the Teachers Association of Long Beach is the city’s largest union.