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Sick days come with their contract. But Philly teachers get punished for taking them.

10 are allowed each year, but after accumulating a few, instructors are expected to meet with the boss. Then things intensify.

Kindergarten teacher Cristina Gutierrez, who has been teaching for 20 years, outside Elkin Elementary in the Kensington section.  “The days were meant for us to take. They are part of our contract, they are our days. To restrict us on how many we can take before being penalized is ridiculous.”
Kindergarten teacher Cristina Gutierrez, who has been teaching for 20 years, outside Elkin Elementary in the Kensington section. “The days were meant for us to take. They are part of our contract, they are our days. To restrict us on how many we can take before being penalized is ridiculous.”Read moreMonica Herndon / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia teachers’ contract allows them 10 sick days a year. But they are progressively penalized just for taking them.

That means when a teacher comes down with a virus or has a family member with a medical emergency, there’s a constant calculus in the heads of many: Can I afford to take the day off? Will there be consequences for doing so?

The policy, known informally as “3-5-7-9,” works this way: After a teacher’s third “occurrence,” whether a single sick day or the third in a consecutive stretch of days, principals are instructed to have an informal conversation with the instructor and write a memo documenting the episode. After the fifth occurrence, the teacher gets a warning memo in the permanent file; after the seventh, the teacher gets an “unsatisfactory incident” memo in the file and a formal conference. A teacher who reaches nine occurrences gets a second unsatisfactory incident report, a recommended suspension, and conferences with the principal and assistant superintendent.

» READ MORE: Philly teachers may have a one-year contract — and a big raise — in a surprise, early settlement

It’s a policy that has been around for decades but is now coming under fire as the Philadelphia district faces a national teacher shortage and particularly high levels of educator attrition.

“The days were meant for us to take,” said Cristina Gutierrez, a kindergarten teacher at Elkin Elementary in Kensington. “They are part of our contract, they are our days. To restrict us on how many we can take before being penalized is ridiculous.”

Teachers plan a rally against the policy before Thursday’s school board meeting.

‘Absolutely, positively hated’

Early in Kate Sannicks-Lerner’s career as a teacher at the Philadelphia School District, she worried about racking up occurrences because she was a single parent responsible for taking off when her daughter got sick. The worries continued when she married and her husband became ill with seizures, surgeries, and serious eye problems.

Now 23 years into teaching in the district, Sannicks-Lerner, who works at Julia de Burgos Elementary in North Philadelphia, is in her last year of worrying about whether she’ll get penalized for taking the time off she earned.

“I can’t say necessarily that it’s the main reason I’m retiring, but it figures heavily in that,” said Sannicks-Lerner. “This policy is absolutely, positively hated.”

She said it’s unevenly enforced, too. During one of her husband’s illnesses, Sannicks-Lerner received a warning that her next occurrence would result in an unsatisfactory incident memo — and advice from her principal to apply under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which would allow her to take time off for her husband’s surgeries and medical appointments outside of the 3-5-7-9 policy.

“But some principals show favoritism to some people; some people are out and they don’t rack up occurrences,” said Sannicks-Lerner, who recently gave Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. an earful about the policy in a one-on-one with the school chief. (She told Watlington they needed to get rid of the policy, Sannicks-Lerner said, and “he said, ‘I’ve heard a lot about that.’”)

According to anecdotes collected by the Caucus of Working Educators, a group within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers that is organizing members to speak out against 3-5-7-9, the policy has not let up in the toughest of situations. One teacher had an infant diagnosed with cancer but did not yet qualify for federal family medical leave, another taught while ill with food poisoning after being threatened with discipline if another sick day were used.

A policy originating 40 years ago

The policy stems from a case dating 40 years, when a district secretary was fired for poor attendance. The PFT challenged the termination and ultimately lost; the arbitrator wrote that management can “require reasonably steady attendance as a condition of employment, regardless of the reasons for the absences, since otherwise the employee is of no practical value to the enterprise.”

The PFT contract sets the number of sick days at 10 (plus three personal days), but the arbitration decision gives the district the right to set the 3-5-7-9 policy. The district’s employee relations department tells principals that “progressive discipline uses increasingly more severe penalties to bring about positive change in employee behavior. The goals of progressive discipline are to improve employee output, correct inappropriate behavior, or terminate recalcitrant employees.”

PFT president Jerry Jordan said he understood the importance of staff attendance but takes issue with the policy. “If someone is sick, that’s what the sick days are for. People should not be mistreated or abused by administration for taking that time,” he said.

Watlington has stressed teacher attendance since he came to Philadelphia — though the superintendent has said he does not expect people to come to work sick — and Jordan said that emphasis has resulted in increased scrutiny on consequences for those staff who do take sick days.

“There are some overzealous administrators in some buildings, and that’s caused a number of people to be called in about attendance,” said Jordan. “But people’s health issues are their personal business, and if they’re not there, they’re not there.”

Jordan has said that eliminating 3-5-7-9 is absolutely an issue at the negotiating table; on Wednesday he announced a new, tentative one-year contract extension that would give members a 5% raise but preserve the rest of the current contract, but if members approve the extension, a new deal would need to be hammered out by Aug. 31, 2025.

Watlington has publicly said the district’s policy could be revised; school board vice president Mallory Fix-Lopez, a former district teacher, has also expressed distaste for it.

“I find it de-professionalizes the space that teachers work in,” Fix-Lopez said at the December board meeting.

Monique Braxton, a district spokesperson, said teachers being disciplined for attendance issues is “extremely rare.” She stressed that teachers should not come to work when they’re sick, and said they have the opportunity to purchase wage continuation insurance “for teachers who need long-term leave beyond their leave balances.”

Officials, Braxton said in a statement, “will review our current processes after this school year to identify areas for improvement as we seek to promote staff attendance and wellness.”

Why 3-5-7-9 rankles

3-5-7-9 takes up a lot of mental energy for Shira Cohen, a math teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences and the school’s union representative.

“People are so terrified to be disciplined for this thing that we have so little control over,” said Cohen. “We can’t control when we get sick, we can’t control when our kids get sick, or life happens or some medical issue comes up.”

The nature of the policy means that staff sometimes end up taking more, not fewer, days off when they’ve burned a sick day, because they have already triggered one occurrence. Cohen, for instance, used a sick day on a recent Tuesday when she was ill. She still wasn’t feeling great Wednesday, but may have tried to push through and gone to work had 3-5-7-9 not been in place. Because she had already gotten one occurrence, though, she stayed out until she felt all better.

“Do you want teachers in classrooms, or do you want to abide by this very antiquated, dehumanizing policy?” said Cohen. “It would be nice to be treated in a more humane way when we’re ill, and when our loved ones are ill.”

Shortly after he started teaching at Building 21, a district high school in West Oak Lane, Julian Prados Franks explained his new employer’s sick time policy to his family. His father, a casino worker, was mystified.

He said, “‘They do what?’” said Prados Franks, who has not incurred consequences for using his sick time — yet. “This policy just demonstrates a fundamental distrust between the district and the teachers; that level of control makes it feel like we’re not adults, like we don’t deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Prados Franks, Cohen, Sannicks-Lerner and Gutierrez all said they believe the 3-5-7-9 policy feeds into the high Philadelphia teacher attrition.

“It’s one of the reasons why nobody wants to be a teacher anymore,” said Gutierrez. “It’s always on your mind — you don’t want to have a bad relationship with your principal because of absences. But we’re not robots who can go go go.”