Postdoc parental leave policies, part 1 (guest post)

Note from Jeremy: This is a guest post by Margaret Kosmala, a postdoc in Organismal and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.

Note from Margaret: This is the second post in a mini-series examining the enormous variation in U.S. postdoc leave benefits. (See first post.) While most postdocs do not consider benefits packages when choosing a position, the benefits available can greatly affect quality of life, and sometimes mean the difference between staying in academia and leaving it — especially for caregivers and those with chronic health conditions. I surveyed 21 U.S. universities with highly ranked ecology programs (according to The Chronical of Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report) and the U.S. federal government by looking up postdoc benefit information on their webpages, and present the data (with commentary) here. (Note that this information is up-to-date as of July 2014. Please provide updates and corrections in the comments. I also welcome data about other universities and will add them to the charts if full info is provided.)

I am writing this in July on maternity leave from my postdoc. Like just about everyone else, I didn’t consider the benefits package when I accepted the job. I was just happy to have a postdoc position doing something interesting in a desirable place. I didn’t know I was pregnant when I accepted the postdoc offer. But I was already four months pregnant when I started the job. When I finally looked into the parental leave policy, I was pleased to discover that I would be able to enjoy 12 weeks of maternity leave at 75% pay.

It turns out that I was lucky – Harvard has one of the best maternity packages in the United States for postdocs. How do I know? Because I was curious and decided to look into it. How good are maternity benefits for postdocs? There are several studies*  that have found that postdoc parental benefits are generally lacking. But how bad do they get? And how much variation is there?

Your access to parental leave in academia depends on your position. Parental leave for grad students is atrocious – at most universities, there is no written policy, and so grad students must negotiate their leave individually. (Good luck with that.) There’s not a lot to research. Conversely, parental leave for tenure-track faculty is relatively good; universities are planning to keep their junior faculty for decades, and it doesn’t make sense to jeopardize that for an issue that can be measured in months. Even if institutional policy isn’t very good, faculty have some leverage to negotiate. (Although, I should note that even for faculty, leave options can be terrible and difficult to get even when a legal right.) I wanted to focus on the postdoc level, because I am one and because I wondered whether postdoc parental leave was more akin to that of grad students (non-existent) or faculty (reasonable).

I only looked into leave for postdocs in the United States. This is because, in general, every other major country that has postdocs also has a national system of paid maternity leave. In other words, it’s pretty easy to find out what your benefits are if you’re going to be a postdoc outside of the U.S. – you just need to look at the national policy. And likely, the policy will be a pretty good one. (NB: I just saw that the U.S. Department of Labor is lobbying for paid family leave in the U.S. There may be hope in the distant future. But it will likely be too late for anyone reading this blog.)

U.S. National Leave Policy

If you are not a parent (yet), you probably assume that there has to be some sort of allowance for people having babies in the United States. After all, millions of Americans have babies each year. I thought so. But it’s not true. Job protection for new parents in the United States is terrible, especially if you are in academia. I’ll explain.

There are laws that prevent discrimination against pregnant women. You can’t deny a woman a job, for example, just because she is pregnant. But those protections end as soon as the woman is no longer pregnant.

The Family Medical Leave Act

The major law that provides protection to new parents is the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, commonly referred to as FMLA. This law allows new parents to take 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave, among other things. “Job-protected” means that the employers may not fire or demote a parent taking the leave allowed by FMLA. “Unpaid” means that neither the employer nor the government is required to pay the parent a salary during FMLA leave.

This sounds, uh, well, terrible as the best possible protection to new parents. But not as terrible as not having FMLA at all. It’s something. But there are a set of qualifying rules to be eligible for FMLA. One is that the employee must have worked for the employer for 1,250 hours in the year before the birth (essentially 60% of full time). Another is that the employee must have worked for the employer for a total of a year’s worth of time before the birth. That essentially means that anyone having a child in the first year of a postdoc is not covered by the FMLA. Further, only actual employees are eligible for FMLA leave. So if you’re on a fellowship stipend – either from the university or an outside institution – you are not technically an employee and so are not eligible for FMLA leave. Because so many postdoc positions are short and/or through fellowships, a good number – probably over half – of postdocs are not covered by the FMLA.

What if you aren’t covered by the FMLA? Then you might be covered by the laws of your state or city. California is a notable leader in the field, granting paid parental leave (but not job protection) to all its citizens. Rhode Island and New Jersey also offer some paid parental leave. But Rhode Island requires that an employee be continuously employed for the previous twelve months, so first-year postdocs don’t typically qualify. And New Jersey requires that you’ve first earned at least $7,300 in salary by the time of birth. Other states may guarantee unpaid leave with better provisions than FMLA. For example, Massachusetts requires that women be allowed eight weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child, as long as she has been employed for at least three months (rather than the twelve for FMLA).

If you’re not covered by FMLA or state laws, then, unless there are institutional policies to the contrary, you do not have the right to take time off to give birth and take care of a newborn. If you do, you can be fired. So those institutional policies really matter. But they vary a lot. I researched policies at 21 universities with top ecology research programs as well as the federal government (which employs ecology postdocs via federal agencies such as the USGS, NIH, EPA, USDA, NOAA, NASA, and DOE). I will describe my findings in detail in my next post.

* Further reading:

One thought on “Postdoc parental leave policies, part 1 (guest post)

  1. Pingback: Parental leave, beyond the numbers (guest post) | Dynamic Ecology

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