Family and friends filled the room as the Rineharts spoke before the Gwinnett County School Board on Thursday in Suwanee, pleading with the board to change the district’s sick leave policy.
Mark Rinehart, Hannah's husband, is a math teacher at South Gwinnett High School. He now has a little over 20 days of sick leave left before he loses his pay and his insurance. According to family, that’s not nearly enough time, and so they are asking that the school board allow fellow teachers to donate their paid time off (PTO).
Mark's hope is that people will be able to donate their unused PTO to him. According to Mark, Gwinnett County policy doesn't allow that.
“I would like to speak to you simply as a dad,” said Doug Johnson, Hannah's father, to the board. “As a little girl, she would run and jump into my arms and give me a great big hug. Unfortunately that little girl no longer has hands or feet. In fact, she is currently fighting for her life in the ICU of Northside hospital.”
Hannah came down with an incredibly rare bacterial infection, capnocytophaga, that caused her organs to shut down. In order to keep blood flowing to her vital organs, doctors prescribed medication that diverted it from her extremities.
Hannah, 32, had to have both hands and feet amputated. Her father said that she is still very sick and having difficulty with her lungs. A three-time cancer survivor, she can pull through this like she has done in the past, he said.
"She’s a fighter," he said. "She's always done a good job at doing whatever it took; she plugged along with all the cancer. She knew it was something she needed to do, and she did it."
Her youngest brother, Michael, donated the bone marrow that helped save Hannah's life when she had Hodkins Lymphoma.
David Johnson, another of Hannah's brothers, has taken on the role of warrior for his sister and brother-in-law and has entered into battle with the school board.
“We’ve been told by family of quadruple amputees that Mark needs to be there for the next six months,” he said. “He has to figure out how he’s going to love his wife; by being there for her, or by providing a paycheck and insurance.”
Although David has had private meetings with Human Resources, he doesn’t feel like they understand what they are asking. They have offered to let Rinehart work two days a month, which would allow him to keep his insurance, or transfer to another department.
“This seems like a really easy decision,” said David. “Mark’s not trying to get out of work to be with his sick wife; he has to be there.”
During the public comment portion of the evening, David said that “Hannah must have Mark by her side if she is going to recover. She is currently sedated, but each time she opens her eyes she is asking for Mark.”
Other teachers at South Gwinnett have offered to donate their unused PTO (paid time off), but there is no system in place for that. Other counties, including Doughtery and Evans, have a sick bank for situations like these. Even the State of Georgia and University of Georgia have a sick leave bank.
“State representatives, a state senator, legislative attorneys for the State House and others have concluded that there is no legal impediment prohibiting GCPS from adopting this new policy immediately,” said David. “By allowing GCPS employees to donate their PTO hours to teachers in need, the school system will be setting a wonderful example for other systems and employers throughout the state.
“This request is legal, it is fair, and it is in the power of GCPS to make it a reality.”
In 2010, Gwinnett County Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks received a payout for unused sick leave. He received $176.15 per hour of unused sick days, according to a 2010 report in the AJC, totaling $18,143. Other superintendents have been reimbursed similarly.
“We earned this sick leave,” said Donna Aker, president of Gwinnett County Association of Educators. “It’s calculated in the county’s budget, and part of the school budget. We can use it as we deem necessary. It’s ours to give. Sick leave donation is not against any law, federal, state or local.”
Although no official promises were given, school board members said they are looking into what can be done. They individually expressed compassion and a desire to see the right thing done, though in what respect remains unsure. Snellville Patch will update you as soon as word of their action is available.
Hannah and Mark have a long road ahead, with many immediate needs. The home they live in in Decatur is much too small to accomodate Hannah's needs once she leaves the hospital, and they will encounter many medical expenses.
To make a donation through Operation Appreciation, visit the website set up in Hannah's honor.