Mar 062005
 
Authors: Tara Land

Professor Mary Vogl is expecting a baby this semester, but she can't afford to take the 12 weeks of unpaid leave allotted to her by the Family Medical Leave Act.

"My choice had to be to stay on as long as possible, otherwise you have to sacrifice your salary," Vogl said.

She was left to her own devices to find a solution that would allow her adequate time to recover from her pregnancy, something that many pregnant professors at CSU are forced to do.

Vogl, who is a professor in the foreign languages and literatures department, decided to cut her 16-week graduate level course in half by fitting everything into an eight-week period.

While she has found a solution, her situation highlights the many problems with maternity leave at CSU for professors and students.

Professors search for solution

Since CSU offers no paid maternity leave, employees must use paid alternatives, such as sick and disability leave. However, CSU professors are unable to access their sick and disability leave for maternity purposes before the baby is born.

"Apparently if my doctor doesn't sign a form saying I need to be off early, in order to take paid leave I'd have to work until the day the baby pops out," Vogl wrote in an e-mail interview. "If I want to be off a week before the due date, even if I have enough sick leave, I'd have to take unpaid leave."

Because of this, many professors are forced to negotiate plans with their individual department, such as Vogl did, and these arrangements directly affect students.

"The students lose, in that their education is sacrificed and we have no one to turn to, to complain that the workload is too high," said Dorianne Hyatt, a French graduate student who is enrolled in Vogl's class. "The professor loses because she is not only enduring physical discomfort but is also unjustly criticized for her choice to have a child."

Other students on campus also feel strongly about the implications of CSU's maternity policies.

"It can affect the students' performance and it is also unfair for the professor," said Rhonda Richmond, graduate student in communications development. "CSU has done a lot to make it a family-friendly campus, but they really need to take the extra needed step for improvement."

While it is common for professors to coordinate leave with their department, as Vogl did, many professors are not as lucky.

The benefits committee, a group of nine university employees who recommend benefits changes, acknowledges an inconsistency with these department negotiations.

"Sometimes the departments pitch in and help out and sometimes they don't," said Susan Hine, professor in agriculture and resource economics and member of the committee. "We need consistency."

Karrin Anderson, a professor in the speech communication department, was pregnant during her first year of employment at CSU, but when it came time to have the baby, she had only accrued 10 days of paid sick leave. Anderson returned to work less than two weeks after her baby was born because she could not afford to do otherwise.

"For my first pregnancy, I had accrued less than two weeks of sick leave so I took eight days off. Because I had not worked at CSU for a year, I wasn't eligible for disability leave," Anderson said.

 

It's the law

According to the federal Family Medical Leave Act, the university must allow up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave without it threatening a professor's employment. This 1993 federal act applies to birth, adoption or foster care. However, most professors do not take the full 12 weeks because they cannot afford it.

"The Family Medical Leave Act is just job protection; it has nothing to do with getting paid," Vogl said.

And while professors are allowed to use a certain amount of the paid sick leave they have earned, for many this is still not enough.

According to the CSU faculty handbook, "up to 160 hours of accumulated sick leave may be used, if requested." This adds up to four weeks of paid leave, but only if the employee has worked at the university long enough to earn that much time.

CSU employees earn 1.25 days of sick leave for each month of employment, so after two semesters of full-time employment they will earn 11.25 days of sick leave, or a little more than two weeks. A professor would have to be at the university for two full years before he or she had the allowed four weeks available for maternity leave.

In Anderson's case, as is the case for most new employees, she had not accrued enough paid leave to cover the time she needed to adequately recover.

"A vaginal birth typically needs six weeks of recovery period," wrote Leanne Schnader, benefits administrator in the human resources department, in an e-mail interview.

Even if professors have accrued the full 160 days of sick leave they are allowed to use, in order to fully recover, they would need to take an additional two weeks of unpaid leave.

"Six weeks is common practice, probably due to the typical six-week post-partum check-up," said Dr. Susan Wolfelt, of the women's clinic in the Hartshorn Health Clinic. "Hopefully, they have stopped bleeding at this point."

Young employees, adjuncts suffer

Most new employees, as previously indicated by Vogl, cannot afford to

sacrifice salary for time off for their recovery.

"More young women are being hired. … The policy really needs to catch up with the hiring trend," Anderson said. "These are the people who tend to be having children and the policy really tends to hurt the lower end of the pay scale."

Employees do have another option beyond sick leave – disability leave.

Employees can qualify for short-term disability leave if they have worked at CSU for more than a year, which can be used for paid maternity leave. To obtain short-term disability leave, there is an application process that potentially grants up to three months depending on a number of factors, such as length of employment and medical issues surrounding the pregnancy.

CSU's maternity policies affect not only the people having babies but also those who have to take their place while they are gone.

CSU instructors, also known as adjunct professors, are often used as substitutes and are not paid for their time.

"If a woman needs time off, the class needs to be covered. However, as the adjuncts aren't paid anything to take on this work in addition to their own full-time schedule, there's not much incentive," said Todd Mitchell, adjunct professor in the English department.

As a married male professor in the English department, Mitchell sees another problem with the status of leave at CSU.

"I think there's a lot of stress in both men and women who are thinking about having children while also working at the university," Mitchell said.

The state status quo

The benefits committee is working to fix any flaws in CSU's maternity leave policies.

"We want to provide a reasonable level of benefits," said Keith Ickes, the interim vice president for administrative services. "We have to develop policy change that is financially possible and reasonable."

Anderson, who is now a member of the benefits committee, and other committee members realize the need for improvement in the CSU's maternity-leave policies.

"We do believe there is a need to help young families," committee member Hine said. "We discuss maternity-leave policy and recognize its importance. Wanting to provide a consistent policy is definitely an issue we deal with in the committee."

Compared to other universities in the state, CSU benefits offered are the status quo.

Julie Nava, the benefit coordinator for human resources at the University of Northern Colorado said: "For a full-time employee, they can use up to 90 days of the sick leave they have accrued. They may also use short-term leave and all of their vacation leave."

At the University of Colorado-Boulder, the policy is also similar.

"We recently revised our policy in March of 2003," said Tangie Sutton, administrative professional in the CU human resources department. "It applies to men, women, adopting and foster parents. They can use annual sick and disability leave for pay, and take the federally mandated 12 weeks as well."

However, many feel the benefits offered are about as good as it can get without being financially irresponsible.

"The reason we offer sick and disability leave is because pregnancy does require recovery," said Carol Shirey, director of human resources at CSU. "There is also a certain sentiment that pregnancy is a choice."

But many people feel there is room for improvement in CSU's maternity-leave policies.

"Though we have made a lot of gains, there are more gains to be made" said Jody Jessup Anger, interim director in the Office of Women's Programs and Studies.

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