Teacher aide warns lack of sick pay for support staff could leave them with no income if they catch COVID-19

A teacher aide in Auckland is demanding the Government gives support staff like her the same access to sick leave that teachers get as she grows increasingly anxious about what will happen if she catches COVID-19.

Omicron is currently surging in New Zealand and support staff - those working as teacher aides, personal assistants, librarians, executive officers and administration staff - are concerned an infection could leave them without a source of income.

If a teacher becomes infected with the virus or needs to stay home to care for sick family members, they can access sick pay that isn't taken off their accrued entitlement. However support staff have to use up their reserves of sick leave and aren't guaranteed any pay after it runs out.

Sara, a teacher aide at a west Auckland school, sent an open letter to MPs earlier this month describing the "lack of fairness" teachers and support staff have when accessing disregarded sick leave if they catch COVID-19.

'Disregarded sick leave' refers to the time off for sickness or injury that isn't deducted from a teacher's sick leave balance.

It can be applied for in a range of scenarios, including when the sickness is traced to the conditions or circumstances a teacher is working in, a workplace injury (if ACC doesn't apply), or they've contracted a notifiable disease that means they can't be at school.

It only applies when the teacher or principal themselves is sick, not if a dependent is.

In her letter, Sara writes that because of this provision, support staff feel like they are "optional extras" rather than important and needed members of the school.

"The advantage for [teachers] is that they are paid throughout their illness without any sick days being taken off their accrued entitlement. For support staff, the picture is vastly different - we are required to use up our reserves of sick leave and then receive no pay at all," she says.

"Remember that for many, COVID-19 is a protracted illness with isolation requirements that can run into weeks. Other employees are entitled to be covered under the Government's Leave Support Scheme, however, state schools are expressly excluded from applying for this help.

"For support staff, this is a double whammy."

Sick leave entitlements 'insulting and disingenuous'

Sara says it could be argued that support staff are significantly more at risk of contracting COVID-19 both in and out of the school environment.

"At school, we are more likely to work in close physical contact with our students. Many with physical or intellectual disabilities require a higher level of physical care, deaf students require that their teacher aides be unmasked in order to communicate, our office staff are often first aiders who have to be able to perform medical tasks with students," she says.

"In addition, most teacher aides are living in the community they serve - they are often parents with children in multiple schools in the area; they often work more than one job to make ends meet; they are churchgoers and community workers."

Teacher aide warns lack of sick pay for support staff could leave them with no income if they catch COVID-19
Photo credit: Getty Images

Also of worry is sick leave entitlement. In July last year, the minimum number of sick days an employee could get changed from five days a year to ten.

But for existing employees, this entitlement comes into effect on their sick leave anniversary, which is 12 months after they were last able to get sick leave. In Sara's case, her sick leave anniversary hasn't rolled around and she's not yet entitled to 10 days. 

"For [Education] Minister [Chris] Hipkins to state that support staff now have ten days of sick pay and can live on that if they get COVID is insulting and disingenuous," she says.

"Some teacher aides have been awarded ten days of sick leave if their anniversary of employment rolled over at the right time. But many, like myself, have not yet had their date come around. Others are new employees and have no sick leave at all."

Sara told Newshub she's "really disappointed" that support staff don't have the same access to sick leave.

"Support staff understand that this is being negotiated in our Collective Agreement negotiations taking place now, but we are also really concerned about contracting COVID and not having any income once our sick pay runs out," she says.

"What it really shows was that there was no thought given to how support staff might cope in the event we get COVID - and now that we have raised the issue, instead of fixing it, we are being fobbed off again."

'Support staff bear just as much risk as teachers'

Sara is so worried about running out of sick leave if she gets COVID-19 that she has to pick and choose ailments she can work through.

"Running out of income means bills get unpaid and we go without necessities. It also means that I cannot afford to take sick leave for anything else," she says.

"For example, I sprained my ankle a couple of weeks ago and haven't taken any sick leave for it as I want to keep it just in case I get COVID."

For Sara - and other support staff, she says - having access to the same sick leave as teachers if they catch COVID-19 would help them all feel more valued in their respective roles.

"We are bearing just as much, if not more, risk as our teachers, so having that access to disregarded leave as a right would really show that our essential roles at schools are truly valued," she says.

"For support staff to have to go to the lengths of writing multiple letters to the Government and other MPs and going to the media and still being denied this disregarded sick leave shows that the Government still does not truly value and understand our role in the education of our tamariki."

Sara says she believes the public would be shocked to know that support staff are "bearing so much of the risk" of COVID-19 at this moment. 

"We all accepted the responsibility to get double vaccinated and boosted - whether or not it is mandated - so that we can help protect the tamariki we work with," she says.

"We feel really unvalued and marginalised when the Government fails to recognise this and value us in the way they value our teacher colleagues. Our teacher colleagues are also shocked that we are not given the same protections and safety net that they are entitled to."

Education Minister responds

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Newshub in a statement that he has encouraged schools to be accommodating of any staff who get COVID-19 or who need to support a dependent who is sick with the virus.

He says schools can provide additional discretionary special leave - which can be paid or unpaid - when sick leave runs out, in accordance with the school's usual leave policy.

"Teachers and teacher aides both receive 10 days paid sick leave per annum. Teacher aides used to receive only seven days' sick leave, compared to teachers' 10, but this was increased to 10 days by the Government last year," Hipkins says.

"The difference is that, after leave has been taken, teachers and principals can apply for what is known as 'disregarded sick leave', where the sick leave is credited back to the teacher.

"'Disregarded sick leave' is a longstanding entitlement in the kindergarten, primary, secondary and area school teachers' collective agreements and the equivalent agreements covering school principals."

Hipkins adds that if a teacher aide needs to self-isolate, then they should work from home where possible. If they can't work from home or need to look after dependents who are self-isolating, their absence should be recorded as discretionary paid leave.