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Paid Leaves: Who should get them?

April 28, 2009

Among many other matters, the faculty senate debates and ultimately approves policies that affect faculty work-life balance.  Last fall our senate dealt with a proposed new faculty benefit called the “Faculty Modified Duties Assignment (FMDA).”  This disingenuously named policy should have  been called “Paid Leave for New Parents (PLNP).”  I always think of it as the “Provost’s Family Planning Policy (PFPP)” because of a provision in it that a faculty member could only take two FMDA “assignments,” i.e., leaves with full pay.  Perhaps an even more honest name for this policy would be the “Tenure-track  Faculty Baby Bonus Policy (TFBBP).”

The FMDA addresses a problem facing  young faculty, especially young female faculty.   It  provides 6 months of paid leave for a faculty member who is the “primary care giver”  of a newly born or adopted child.  Many other universities have such a policy, and the Provost and her surrogates argued that having such a policy would help recruit more female faculty.   It would seem like a no-brainer to approve  such a policy and, in fact, our senate did.  Unfortunately, it should not have.

Let me state emphatically that I am all for children and for paid leaves to deal with family and medical emergencies.  I have three daughters who are between the ages of 25 and 35.  All of them work full-time, and none of them have children.   I am well aware of the problems that young women face trying to balance their careers with family life.  I am also very aware of the problems faced by older faculty who have to take care of aging parents, ailing spouses, and sick children.   One of my daughters almost died of a ruptured appendix and dealing with that medical crisis was  both stressful and time consuming.

The senate debated this new faculty benefit at the onset of the current economic crisis.    For  this policy to go into effect, the board of regents will need to approve it.  This is not going to happen at a time when the state universities are facing a 15% cut in their state appropriations, and one of the cost-cutting measures to reduce expenditures proposed by the Provost and approved by the regents was to cut all benefits (including retirement and medical coverage) for part-time faculty with less than 50% appointments.  Consequently, the policy has not yet been taken to the regents for approval, and it will not in the foreseeable future.   This gives us some time to develop a better policy.

A fundamental problem with this policy was pointed out in a written comment on an early draft of it, “..it [the FMDA] discriminates against non-tenure-eligible faculty of whom there are great and increasing numbers.  It also does not allow for modified duties in case of other family obligations – ill spouse/partner or immediate family member.  Many enlightened workplaces include these groups.  We should too.”    I could not agree more.   The proposed policy is discriminatory, and a step backward for the university.

The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act recognized that there will be times when all employees have to deal with major personal problems that will prevent them from carrying out their duties.  The Act recognizes three such situations:
(1) caring for newly born or adopted children;
(2) caring for a sick spouse, child or parent who has a serious health problem, and
(3) dealing with an employee’s own serious health problem.
For all three situations, an unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks must be granted.  All subsequent university work-life-balance policies have been made in the spirit of this law and thus they apply to faculty facing all three situations.  The most important of these subsequent policies are allowing  temporary conversions to part-time appointments  and extending from 6 to 10 years the probationary period for a mandated tenure review.

When evaluating any proposed policy, I ask myself three basic questions.  Has a significant problem been demonstrated to exist and will the proposed policy solve the problem?    Is the proposed solution to the problem equitable; i.e., will all members of the affected class benefit from the new policy?   If for practical reasons it is not possible to extend this policy to the entire affected class, will those most in need benefit?

What is the problem that the FMDA is supposed to solve?  Do we actually have a problem?  The simple answer is that we do not know.  The FMDA was not developed as a result of informed university-wide discussions of which faculty were facing the most serious personal problems.   No attempt was made to assess which faculty were not adequately served by existing policies.  In this case, the effectiveness of  the conversion to part-time appointments (available for only a couple of years) and extension of the tenure clock for solving the problems of new parents was not evaluated.   Given the average age of our faculty, there are many more faculty that are facing significant problems with aging parents and sick family members than faculty dealing with new children.

Is the proposed policy equitable? No.  Only tenure-track faculty who are the parents of a new born child or who adopt a child under age 6 can take a FMDA.  No justification is provided for why this group is more in need of paid release time or why they should receive preferential treatment when compared to other groups identified by the Family and Medical Leave Act.   In the past, all the faculty were covered by new work-life related policies.   In fact, many universities as well as companies have paid leaves for all staff who face any of the situations described in the Family Medical Leave Act.

Will the policy at least benefit those in most need?  No.  The FMDA will not be available to those who most need it, our poorly paid, non-tenure-eligible faculty.  Their only options are taking unpaid leaves or working less (for less pay).  Unpaid leaves can be a major economic burden  for non-tenure-eligible faculty  They often  can  not afford to take unpaid leaves or  to work less  because they cannot afford the cut in pay.

The argument was also raised by the administration that  a more inclusive policy would cost too much.  This problem, if real, could easily have been solved by paying faculty 80% rather than 100% of their salaries while on a FMDA.  This would create a  pool of funds that could be used to hire temporary replacements  (postdocs, PhD students, lecturers) to cover the teaching responsibilities for faculty on a FMDA, regardless of the reason for needing to take one.  (We have such a pool to hire temporary replacements for faculty on sabbaticals, which we disingenuously call faculty professional development assignments (FPDAs).)   In other words, FMDAs can easily be made revenue neutral.  They need not cost the university any additional money if extended to all faculty.

By endorsing a policy to give paid leaves only to faculty with new children, the university has explicitly stated that the recruitment of young faculty is more important than the retention of older faculty whose major work-life problems are dealing with their family’s and their own medical problems.   This is de facto age discrimination.   We need to replace our limited FMDA policy with a more inclusive policy that is in keeping with the spirit of the Family Medical Leave Act and our own previous work-life policies.   As noted, many universities already have paid leaves that enable their faculty to deal with all three situations recognized in the Family Medical Leave Act.   In short, the policy that we adopted did not even make us competitive when it comes to hiring new faculty.  We need to do better.

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