Minimal parental leave policies lead faculty to drastic measures

By Alexandra Yetter, Staff Reporter

Grace Senior
Minimal parental leave policies lead faculty to drastic measures

Columbia faculty who are parents have few options for parental or family leave. Sean Andrews, associate professor in the History, Humanities and Social Sciences Department and Faculty Senate president, never could make it work.

His first child was born during the summer of 2010, and he did not need to take time off, he said. His second child was stillborn, and the school where he was a fellow at the time allowed him to take paid time off, a luxury he said Columbia would not have permitted.

For his third child, he and his wife decided to induce labor a week early so he could spend time with his daughter before he had to return to work at Columbia for the start of the Fall 2014 Semester.

Columbia’s parental leave policies, including maternity and spousal or paternity leave, comply with the minimum requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law requires  up to 12 weeks unpaid time off with the promise that an employer will preserve the job of an employee who uses that time to be with a new child.

Many companies, most notably in Silicon Valley, have expanded parental leave policies for their employees. For instance, non-unionized Netflix employees are able to take a year off with full pay and Amazon allows non-unionized employees to donate up to six weeks pay to their partner who is not paid during parental leave at their workplace, according to a Jan. 2 Recode survey.

Along with tech and hospital industries, higher education institutions tend to have large numbers of employees, according to Annie Sartor, workplace program director at Paid Leave for the U.S. Yet, colleges are falling behind in the expansion of their voluntary parental leave benefits, she said.

“Some universities are realizing this is a problem and they have to provide [extended] benefits,” Sartor said.

Higher education institutions such as the University of Colorado, the University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech have increased parental leave benefits beyond FMLA regulations, Sartor said. DePaul University joined these schools, offering 100 percent paid maternity leave of up to 10 weeks, according to the DePaul Human Resources office.

“[FMLA] is an insane policy at the national level, to have people who are caring for a newborn child [expected] to be productive at work,” Andrews said. “It’s mentally taxing; you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re trying to get your head around this whole new way of life. It would be better if you gave people more time to get themselves into that new [mind] space, and then be ready to come back to work.”

In her work with Paid Leave for the U.S., Sartor said she has encountered many teachers who try to schedule their pregnancies so they will give birth over the summer and not have to take unpaid time off during the school year.

The solution is as simple as the college following suit with other institutions across the nation by expanding parental leave benefits to include paid or reduced pay leave, or at least a semester of paid leave, Andrews said.

Following an October faculty survey that revealed wide dissatisfaction with  parental leave policies among the full-time faculty at the college, the administration is looking at ways of improving its compensation package, which could possibly include improved parental leave benefits, Andrews said.

“As one part of that review, President Kim has asked Human Resources to take steps to make our parental leave benefits more responsive to the needs of our diverse faculty and staff,” read a Nov. 1 email statement from Laurent Pernot, chief of staff, to The Chronicle. “We look forward to continued dialogue on this topic.”

The college’s News Office denied The Chronicle an interview with Pernot.

Andrews said one of the reasons parental leave policies isn’t a bigger issue for Columbia faculty is because many of the faculty are already past the time they would be having children.

One in four women nationwide return to work within two weeks of giving birth, according to a 2015 study by Abt Associates for the U.S. Department of Labor. Returning to work too early can pose mental and physical risks to both parents and children, especially mothers who are still recovering from childbirth, Sartor said.

Not only does bonding between parents and a newborn become more difficult as parents are not around as often, but mothers may also suffer with postpartum depression, Sartor said.

“It’s ironic, given that teachers are instructed to educate the youth of this country, yet are not able to care for their own family,” Sartor said.