News, University News

Faculty, staff members navigate University, state parental leave policies

Lack of departmental flexibility, scheduled event times among concerns cited by new parents

By
News Editor
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When a staff member gave birth and returned to Brown a few weeks later, international students from countries with mandated paid maternity or parental leave, “were shocked” to see her on campus again so quickly, she said. The United States remains one of the few countries in the world without national leave for new parents, and Rhode Island is one of only three states in the country with paid leave for new parents.

“We should be embarrassed” by the quality of parental leave, the staff member said, who recently gave birth and requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions.

The University works to offer benefits for employees that exceed those mandated by federal and state law, said Jeffrey Jakulevicius, University Human Resources benefits compliance analyst.

The policies are designed to meet the needs of new parents “one-on-one,” said Director of Benefits Drew Murphy.

At the University, separate benefits exist for faculty and staff members, but an overarching culture of apathy surrounding parental leave exists on campus, according to interviews with multiple employees.

Taking leave

If qualified, staff members can combine various federal and state benefits with University benefits, Jakulevicius said.

Federally, new parents who have worked at the University for at least 12 months are entitled to take unpaid leave to care for new children for up to 13 weeks under the Family Medical Leave Act, Jakulevicius said.

Further, Rhode Island allows new parents four weeks of paid leave at 50 percent of their salary after taxes under Temporary Caregiver Insurance, and mothers can claim an additional six to eight weeks of income at 60 percent of their salary before taxes through Temporary Disability Insurance, he added.

The University’s policy functions as a complement to these existing laws. All staff members may use sick or vacation time to compensate for lost earnings, Jakulevicius said. Additionally, if staff members have worked at the University for four years or longer, they are entitled to six weeks of full pay.

The mix of federal, state and company policies can be “ridiculously complicated” for employees to navigate, said Lori Mihalich-Levin, a healthcare lawyer and expert on parental leave in the United States.

An absence specialist within University Human Resources is dedicated to demystifying the leave policies, Jakulevicius said.

At least 30 percent of staff members do not qualify for the University’s six weeks of paid leave, according to documents obtained from University Human Resources. The four years of service requirement could be difficult to redeem as many employees arrive at a company during their childbearing years, Mihalich-Levin said.

Because the staff member had not worked at the University long enough to qualify for the paid leave benefit, she returned to work a few weeks after giving birth because she could not afford to lose part of her salary, she said. The day she returned to work, she cried three times in her office because of the sudden separation from her newborn.

But Christina Falcon, a former administrative assistant at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs, said her department was “extremely lenient” with her maternity leave even though she did not qualify for the FMLA and thus did not receive full compensation because she had not worked at Brown for 12 months or more. “The direct decision from my supervisor (to offer time off) really made an impact,” she said.

Faculty members may choose to take leave under state policies or opt to take paid teaching relief from the University, which allows faculty members to be relieved of their teaching duties for one semester at full salary and have their tenure and promotion calendars pushed back, said Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12.

Every faculty member has opted to use the teaching leave over the state and federal benefits “as far as I can remember,” said Associate Dean of the Faculty Anne Windham.

“It’s good that the benefit is automatic,” said Associate Professor of Anthropology Jessaca Leinaweaver.

But, the teaching relief “is not a leave,” so technically parents are expected to perform service for their department — for example, advise students or attend department meetings — during the first few months after their child’s arrival. Fulfilling these obligations as a new parent can pose a problem, Leinaweaver said.

The policy is especially burdensome on female professors, because they are physically recovering from childbirth but still statistically perform more service for their departments, Leinaweaver added, citing an educational study published on the website Inside Higher Ed.

No one “should have to turn their body inside out and give birth to a baby and go back to work two weeks later,” Mihalich-Levin said.

Dartmouth and Penn offer similar policies, advertising teaching relief as the only flexible work benefit for faculty members, according to their websites.

But other universities offer some form of paid leave to new mothers in addition to teaching relief. At Harvard, they can receive paid medical leave for up to eight weeks after birth, and at Princeton, the benefit ranges from nine to 13 weeks of paid leave, according to their respective websites.

At Brown, requesting flexible work arrangements or additional time off requires having “good relations with your department,” Leinaweaver said.

Chair and Professor of Africana Studies Brian Meeks said he would approach the details of parental leave with “maximum flexibility,” but echoed that the day-to-day logistics would be handled by individual departments because they are not “in the immediate space” of the dean of the faculty.

“Most (departments) don’t have formal policies” for new parents to promote flexibility, McLaughlin said. But, if faculty members have complaints, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty will intervene and mediate the conflict, he added.

In Leinaweaver’s experience in the anthropology department, her colleagues were accommodating because “they are academically cognizant of how families are structured.”

A faculty member who requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions said she had trouble coordinating flexible work arrangements with the chair of her department when she gave birth a few years ago. “There’s no consistent policy” to deal with workplace accommodations, the faculty member said.

Having a reputation as a progressive institution “is a mandate” for the University to be “at the front of these social fights,” the faculty member said. Specifically, the University needs to implement more uniform benefits for all new parents that cannot vary by department, she added.

Returning to work

“The demands on women’s bodies continue for a year” after birth, the anonymous staff member said. For example, according to the human resources website, “the University supports and encourages the practice of breastfeeding” and will provide a private, locked space for employees who choose to pump breast milk during working hours.

The anonymous faculty member did not have an office when she gave birth, so she was assigned to pump in a dimly lit storage closet, she said. The lock on the door was faulty, and another staff member walked in while she was pumping in the closet, she added.

The occurrence was embarrassing and frustrating, the faculty member said. “Women are always caught in this double bind. … Society gives us so many instructions to breastfeed, but there are no mechanisms to do so,” such as extended maternity leave through the nursing period, she said.

To relieve new parents’ concern for day care costs — some of which have exceeded tuition at public universities — Brown offers a childcare subsidy for employees whose “total household adjusted gross income is less than or equal to $100,000 per year” and provides backup childcare for any employee, Jakulevicius added.

Leinaweaver suggested the policy be extended to graduate students who are eligible to take advantage of the day care subsidy. The subsidy helps parents find adequate care after the University-owned day care closed in 2012, The Herald previously reported.

When evaluating policy options after the day care closure, creating a new University-owned facility was deemed “too expensive,” McLaughlin said.

Other campuses, such as Dartmouth, continue to offer a facility designed for children of university employees, according to Dartmouth’s website. The day care’s fees run on a sliding scale relative to a family’s income.

Most employees interviewed took issue not with the day care subsidy policy, but with the University’s tendency to schedule some events after a day care’s normal operating hours, which typically end at 5 p.m. Employees are often forced to choose between “supporting colleagues” or “putting (their) child to bed,” the staff member said.

In spring 2015, Provost Richard Locke released a report that advised departments to schedule events at varying times to avoid “marginalizing or disadvantaging faculty members with young families.”

“The guidance remains in place,” wrote Chief of Staff to the Provost Marisa Quinn in an email to The Herald. “It is very much aligned with our overall diversity and inclusion efforts.”

This year, the faculty member’s department held a series of events that all started after 5 p.m. She could not attend and participate in any of the activities, she said.

Similarly, the staff member worked to organize an event, which was ultimately scheduled after 5 p.m. Because of instances like this, new parents “are seen as an inconvenience” because they require additional logistical consideration, the staff member said.

The anonymous faculty member and staff member both said they wished their colleagues would engage more with issues for new parents. It can be perceived as inappropriate to talk about having young children, the staff member said.

Nationally, there is “a lack of normalizing of being a working parent,” Mihalich-Levin said.

In the eyes of the staff member, policies that don’t properly accommodate new parents, especially new mothers, can “push them out of the workplace,” she said.