SIEGEL: The shortcomings of U.Va.’s parental leave system

U.Va.’s parental leave system, though recently expanded, isn’t comprehensive enough, and does not work for the benefit of many employees

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In early September of this year, U.Va. President Jim Ryan publicized the extension of paid parental leave to all eligible staff. 

Raymundo Mora | Cavalier Daily

In early September of this year, U.Va. President Jim Ryan publicized the extension of paid parental leave to all eligible staff — salaried, full time academic employees — of the University and the University’s Health System. The new policy is designed to align with the executive order Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam delivered, which provides eight weeks of paid parental leave to state employees, expanding the benefits beyond just those who birthed the child. 

While Northam’s order was a progressive step concerning parental leave policy, it was available only “to classified employees at the University, but not to other groups of employees” — Ryan took this a step further, guaranteeing “parity across Grounds.” This decision to magnify the scope of whom this policy reaches reflects very well on the University’s goals in higher education — other institutions must follow the University’s lead in modernizing their policies to maintain the well-being of their employees and competitive position among other schools across the country. 

Yet, the conversation must not stop here. Over and over again, our universities have ignored graduate students and post-doctorates from inclusion in these policies — these students should not have to choose between their child and job just the same. 

University parental leave policies vary extensively — while some institutions offer fair to generous paid parental leave opportunities, many have no policies at all. And it’s not just academia that suffers in this department. The United States trails far behind the rest of the world in regards to policies protecting the rights of parents who have just had children. Despite the U.S.’s proclivity to support the institution of the family, first and foremost, “paid leave remains unavailable to 114 million workers in the United States, and nearly half of the population who qualify for unpaid leave are unable to take it due to financial reasons.” These statistics are sobering. 

That being said, more companies that ever before are beginning to offer pay for new parents. While this compensation is presumably self-serving, such policy amendment sets a positive precedent for others to follow. On the contrary, our nation’s universities are not on the same page in this effort to help parents maintain a healthy and fruitful work-life balance. 

Most university faculty and staff are guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected parental leave through the Family Medical Leave Act. However, parenting students do not qualify for these benefits unless they are also considered employees with the required qualifying hours. This oversight needs attention, and unraveling the complexities associated with Title IX is the first step to redirect this focus. According to Jessica Lee, a staff attorney at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, parenting students have a legal right to paid leave only “if a doctor says the student needs 12 weeks to recover, and it’s medically necessary for them to have time off, the university has to provide it.” 

Yet, these protections only go so far, as the decision lies largely in the hands of the school’s advisors. As students become aware of their legal parental rights, the demand for family-friendly policies will be rightfully actualized — the institutions that fail to provide will lose their competitive edge and feel the effects of brain drain.

Returning to school or deferring education should not have to be a choice any mother or father considers. With that, universities need to stake their claim in this policy arena and offer institutional support for new parents. Only three universities in the country have graduate parental leave policies, none of which offer time off comparable to that guaranteed under FMLA. Most graduate programs allow for their students to take a semester-long “leave of absence,” which does not guarantee their spot will be open in the year to follow, jeopardizing their enrollment in the school. 

While Ryan’s recent announcement has cause for excitement, the University’s Financial Childbirth Accommodations for Graduate Students on Assistantship needs revision in order to acknowledge graduate students’ labor and compensate them appropriately in these critical milestones. Graduate students do the groundwork that keeps universities competitive — parental leave policies recognize this effort as well as “the humanity of graduate students.” 

The University should initiate a more nuanced policy change for new parents so as to bridge the compatibility gap between succeeding as a parent and succeeding in the workplace. 

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion Columnist and was the 128th Opinion Editor of The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at l.siegel@cavalierdaily.com.

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