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NEA News

How One Union is Working for Paid Parental Leave

Universities are tough places for women to work. Parental leave policies are part of the problem.
Published: May 16, 2019

Audience members at United Faculty of Florida meetings don’t often coo with appreciation. But a recent UFF-University of Florida (UFF-UF) bargaining session was more satisfying than Bubble Guppies for the many babies (literally) in attendance.

With UFF-UF’s contract expiring this year, faculty union leaders are determined to replace UF’s 1950s-style parental leave policies with provisions that will promote gender equity among UF employees and support healthy families. Their efforts at the bargaining table would make UF a better place to work and a healthier place for children and families—and also bring the state’s flagship university, currently ranked 8th in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, into line with other Florida universities and other top-10 public universities.

“I have felt very supported, in all ways, in my experiences here at UF. The one thing, and I knew this coming in, is that the parental leave policy is just not good here,” says Lisa Scott, a UFF-UF leader who co-presented on parental leave during the recent bargaining session.

Scott, who came to Gainesville from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2015 during a UF campaign to hire new faculty at the top of their fields, is an associate professor of psychology who focuses on infant learning and brain development. With earned authority, she says, “There is a huge discrepancy between the policy here and what we had received at UMass. This is my area of research and I can tell you that [UF’s policy] is detrimental to women and children.”

Union leaders also are encouraging more availability of childcare on campus through the expansion of existing programs.

What does a 21st century policy look like?

Under the terms of UFF-UF’s current employee contract, new parents don’t get paid parental leave. Instead, they can use up to six weeks of accrued sick or vacation time, and then “borrow” any additional weeks against future years of employment.

To stay home for an additional 12 weeks—to recover from childbirth or bond with an adopted child—requires 480 hours, or an additional six years of work without any sick days or vacations. Two children add up to 12 years of indenture.

“That’s six years of you not getting sick, not getting cancer, not having an accident,” says Scott. “There was one women who was in a really serious accident and she ended up teaching online from her hospital room because she didn’t have any remaining sick time!”

Making matters worse, the policy is inconsistently applied across the university, says Hélène Huet, a European studies librarian who co-presented with Scott. Faculty can negotiate with department chairs for better deals. Some get them, some don’t. “I work in the libraries and my department is mostly women. From what my colleagues who are pregnant, or have been, say, our department is very supportive. Others less so,” says Huet.

By comparison, UF’s peer institutions have clear, more expansive policies that invest in their faculty and families. The University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill allows new parents on 9-month academic appointments to take a full semester of paid leave, while the University of Michigan offers six weeks of paid maternity leave, plus six weeks of paid parental leave for all new parents. In September, the University of Virginia improved its policy from three weeks to eight weeks of paid parental leave.

Meanwhile, three years ago, University of Central Florida union leaders negotiated for a full semester of paid leave for mothers and fathers, including same-sex parents. That’s also what Florida State University and the University of South Florida faculty get, UFF-UF leaders found.

Across the nation, the average duration of parental provided by university employers is 14.2 weeks for women and 11.6 weeks for men, according to a research database maintained by some University of Colorado-Boulder faculty.

If university administrators want to break into the top-five ranked U.S. public universities—and they have announced a campaign called “rise to five”—then they need to improve their policy, UFF-UF leaders say. “In my view, I do think the administration knows this is important. I do think they want to make a change,” says Scott.

“They’re smart people,” she says.

There are other reasons…              

Universities are already tough places for women to work. They get paid less—and the gap is bigger at doctoral-granting public universities than any other kind of public institution. On average, according to data published last year in the NEA Advocate, women faculty at doctoral-granting public universities, like the University of Florida, earn 81 percent of what their male colleagues earn.

Additionally, while women hold 49 percent of all faculty jobs, they only hold 38 percent of tenured jobs, according to a 2016 TIAA Institute study. That means they’re more likely to earn less in contingent or adjunct positions, where they have no job security, no voice, and little access to health and retirement benefits.

UF isn’t an exception to these employment practices, UFF-UF leaders found. Just 10 percent of “distinguished professors” are women; 24 percent of full professors; 35 percent of associate professors; and 41 percent of assistant professors. Meanwhile, women are over-represented in non-tenured, non-tenure-track roles.

“[UF’s parental leave policy” is just another policy that hurts women more than it hurts men,” says Scott. “It’s just another thing that adds to the difficulty that women have navigating the academic system and tenure ladder.”

Putting aside the risk to their careers, a poor parental leave policy also can damage new parent’s health—and the well-being of their children. Postpartum depression is less prevalent among mothers with paid leave, researchers have found. Also, studies show that paid leave is strongly associated with reduced infant mortality rates, says Scott. In fact, researchers estimate that providing 12 weeks of paid leave to all American mothers would results in nearly 600 fewer infant deaths per year.

“There is data showing that parents just knowing they have parental leave reduces negative outcomes for infants. Not being constantly worried about how you’re going to make ends meet, how you’re going to have to spend time with your baby—those things matter,” says Scott. “In the first six months of life, babies learn almost entirely from their interactions in the home. High-quality care has to be in the home—and outside the home. I would really love to have a flexible policy that allows families to decide what would be the best use of their time in the first year.”

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.