Working around childbirth: How university family leave policy affects new parents
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Working around childbirth: How university family leave policy affects new parents

Currently, the United States is one of the only countries that does not offer paid leave for mothers or fathers after the birth of a child.

The present family leave policy at USD falls under the Federal Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which, applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. These employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year.”

Julia Hellwege, an assistant political science professor, had a child last year while working at USD.

Hellwege also recently wrote an article for The Washington Post on moms in Congress and their impact on making legislation regarding family leave. 

She said she started researching family leave after her 10-week pregnancy appointment. 

My first step was talking to other women on campus who have children to figure out what they did because there just aren’t any leave policies available on campus,” Hellwege said. “The next step was calling HR (Human Resources) and trying to learn as much as I could about the process.”

Hellwege said most people can’t afford to take the full 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Their next option is to use their accrued sick leave.

“Faculty accrues sick leave at a number of hours per pay period, so the longer you’ve been here the more sick leave you have,” Hellwege said. “When I gave birth to my daughter, I had been here for a year and a half, so I had about 120 hours.”

That meant in a 40 hour work week, she could have taken two and a half weeks off, but Hellwege said she worked with her department head to find creative solutions.

“I moved one of my classes to be a second half of the semester course, so I came back after spring break for that course and for my other class we hired an adjunct for the first six weeks,” she said. “My daughter was born mid-January and I came back to work on Presidents Day.”

Hellwege said she learned she could use her sick leave in increments, so she only took off for times she would be teaching.

“Professor’s jobs are divided up, not in thirds, but in three things: teaching, research and service,” Hellwege said. “Each professor has a different percentage of how much time we spend on each of those. For most of us teaching is around 50 percent of what we do which means I could take 20 hours off for FMLA instead of 40 (per week).”

However, Hellwege said in most cases doctors won’t let moms go back to work until eight or 12 weeks after birth depending on the severity of the birth.

“I had to go back to work almost immediately because of taking off for only teaching,” Hellwege said. “My doctor actually had to write a note to HR to say that I was clear to go back to work less than a week after giving birth so I could actually take my sick leave.”

In the end, Hellwege said she had an easy recovery, but the best case scenario shouldn’t be looked at when creating solutions for family leave.

“The more that we can make flexible options and how we schedule classes the better,” Hellwege said. “It is challenging to be a parent and be in a relatively high demand job of a professor.”

Nathan Bates, a German professor at USD, previously taught as a graduate assistant at the University of Washington and had two children during that time.

Bates said the graduate students were never informed on what their rights were or what they could expect for paternity leave.

“I was told only later that I had a right to one week,” Bates said. “The problem is when you’re a teacher somebody has to fill in for your class. It’s not like a lot of other jobs, if you have an office job, for example,  somebody else can fill in or do your work.”

He was granted the one week for his first child in 2012, but it wasn’t in a supportive environment, Bates said.

“So that was unfortunate that I was told by one of the staff that us having a child was considered inconvenient, and of course it’s inconvenient but everybody ought to have that right to have children,” Bates said.

The next time Bates and his wife had a child was in 2016. The communication was better, Bates said, but his one week off happened to fall on the week of spring break.

“I wasn’t necessarily entitled to another week off…they were nicer the second time because the first time I had been told that it was putting undue pressure on the other teachers because they had to rearrange their schedules to try and cover my class,” Bates said.

Luckily, Bates’ wife wasn’t working at the time, and both their parents were able to help take care of the new baby, Bates said.

Even with the help, Bates said it would have been nice to have had at least two or three weeks to spend with the baby.

“Those first weeks are just, first of all, they’re so important for a child’s development,” Bates said. “Anybody who’s had children can say that it’s also just a demanding time. You’re all of a sudden not getting the sleep you originally got.”

This transition poses an issue affecting student learning, Bates said.

“You have a professor who’s fatigued, stressed out, not getting enough sleep, irritable, may not interact with students ideally,” Bates said. “You may be angry at students for no good reason and also could be irritable with colleagues and may not perform as well.”

The German professor said there are advantages to other countries’ policies.

“In Germany, you get three months of paternity leave,” Bates said. “Women can have a year and she cannot be fired.”

It should be noted that this is also paid family leave, whereas the United States does not mandate paid family leave.

Bates said he is in favor of the reform of this issue.

“If the governments and societies have a vested interest in the health of their citizens and in a stable population and to do that they need to provide some minimal care health care to their to their citizenry in order to also encourage the population to grow,” Bates said.

The Volante reached out to USD Human Resources for confirmation on USD’s family leave policy, but they did not respond in time for print. You can also reach out to attorneys helping with estate planning in Fresno to know more about family law and leave policy and help you out in such situations.

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