BAYONET POINT — Three years ago, Bayonet Point Middle School teacher Connie Duffy was ailing and out of sick leave. She kept coming to work, even as Stage 4 cancer pummeled her body, because she couldn't afford to go without a paycheck.
"There are a lot of people who would have shared their (sick leave) time with Connie, if it were allowed," principal Mike Asbell recalled. "But it wasn't legal."
Florida lawmakers took a big step toward changing that policy on Wednesday.
The state Senate unanimously approved a bill that would permit school districts to allow employees to share their unused sick days with any district employee they choose. The state House unanimously supported the identical measure earlier in February.
If Gov. Rick Scott signs the legislation into law, district employees would no longer be limited to sharing their leave with family members also in the system, or to a general sick leave bank that workers could apply to. It would take effect on July 1.
Nadine Rife, a retired Bayonet Point Middle teacher, praised the decision.
"I think that's wonderful," said Rife, who worked with Duffy and had wanted to donate some of her accrued sick time to her friend. "Connie went through so much. There were a whole bunch of us willing to give her our sick days. It was just a shame that we couldn't."
She lamented that the measure comes too late for Duffy, who passed away in 2010. But Rife was pleased to know that the option might exist for others in need.
"Some things are priceless," said Rife, who as a teacher in Virginia donated 10 days to a friend who needed time off after his sister had committed suicide. "I think it's wonderful that they are doing this."
Joanne Giglio, another of Duffy's friends and co-workers, said she hoped Scott will sign the bill into law.
"Applying for the sick leave bank easily could be humiliating, almost akin to begging," said Giglio, a Bayonet Point Middle teacher.
She remembered Duffy having to get her doctors to write that she was "terminal" in order to tap into the district leave bank. "That wasn't even a word she was using to describe herself. She was still fighting the fight."
Giglio liked the idea that it would be easier for school employees to help each other.
Pasco County school teachers receive 11 sick days per year, on average. They have been allowed to put one day each year into the district sick leave bank, which is controlled by a board of employees who contribute.
The district supported the proposed law change as it went through committees, spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said, and will look for ways to make it happen if signed into statute.
"It just provides more options for our employees," Romagnoli said, noting that the district frequently gets requests from employees wishing to contribute their leave to non-relatives.
The bill (HB 285) was filed by Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington, after a Martin County teacher struggled to get time off to spend with her husband, who was recovering from a brain injury in North Carolina. Harrell told the Stuart News when she submitted the bill that it should be easier for school district employees to help individual coworkers.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.