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Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Campaign pushes UW-Madison to reconsider family leave policies

Despite being one of the top public research universities in the country, the University of Wisconsin-Madison does not offer paid family and medical leave to all employees. 

But a growing group of advocates, led by graduate student workers, say it’s time for a policy change on campus.

UW-Madison remains one of the few Big Ten schools without a university-wide paid family and medical leave policy, while nine in ten peer universities in the Association of American Universities Data Exchange (AAUDE) offer at least six weeks of paid parental leave for their employees.

What’s more, a 2018 study from researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder surveyed 205 research universities in the United States and Canada. It found that 60% of these universities had some form of paid parental leave for their employees. 

An ad-hoc working group, established by UW-Madison in 2016, recommended the university adopt a six-week paid leave plan. They also found that 90% of universities similar to UW-Madison offer faculty an average of eight weeks of paid leave and 80% offer graduate students an average of five weeks.

Under current federal and state laws, most state employees, including those at UW-Madison, are entitled to unpaid leave. While those laws give faculty and academic staff some relief, graduate students and other employees are ineligible. Current university policy only allows graduate students six days of paid leave by using the employee’s sick or vacation days. 

From there, graduate students are at the mercy of their supervisors, creating what Nina Denne, co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), describes as a “scary” situation for her members. According to Denne, graduate students run the risk of losing their tuition remission, health insurance or even their position if they take additional time off.

“People have written-in stories saying, ‘When I told my advisor I was pregnant, he laughed at me and told me I would never finish my PhD,’” Denne said. “That can be really scary for folks. So, I think understanding those pieces and how critical it is to have a policy that just works and covers everyone and doesn't rely on the leniency of an advisor is really important.”

For advocates like Denne, the early part of 2023 seemed like a potential opening. In February, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed a 12-week paid leave plan for all Wisconsin workers in his 2023-25 state budget. By May, Republicans on the state Legislature’s budget-writing committee stripped paid leave, among 500 other initiatives, from the proposed budget. Evers eventually signed a heavily modified Republican budget without paid leave in July after months of back-and-forth with state lawmakers.

Following Evers’ recommendation and the working group’s report, the TAA, United Faculty and Academic Staff (UFAS) Local 223 and other campus labor organizations issued a letter to UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin in the spring of 2023. The letter demanded the university adopt a 12-week paid family and medical leave policy.

“The findings of that report were especially damning and really showed that there's no good excuse to not have this policy,” Denne said.

Denne expressed her optimism regarding the campaign’s empathy and collective power in the months since the letter. 

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“The majority of grad students are not parents,” Denne said. “They may never need to take time off for a medical reason, but they still understand that these policies are valuable and necessary for folks who want to be in grad school while also being parents and not having to pick between their family and their career.”

The letter garnered hundreds of signatures from students, faculty, staff and other community members. While most signatures are from graduate students, Denne applauded faculty and academic staff for lending “credibility” to the campaign through their support.

One of these academic staff members is Adrienne Pagac, a former TAA leader. She currently serves as UFAS organizing committee chair and managing director of the Havens Wright Center for Social Justice in the UW-Madison Sociology Department.

Pagac said standing in solidarity with her coworkers is an obligation, not a choice. 

“It’s incumbent upon us to push and to use our power on campus to advocate for people who might have less power, and that’s true anytime that happens,” Pagac said. “It’s a duty to advocate for coworkers who might do different work but are just as important to making the university run as we all are.”

What’s more, paid leave would be a “boon” for public health and the economy and just makes sense, Pagac said. She believes it’s in the university’s best interest and comes down to their desire to make it happen.

A policy in the works?

Since 2015, UW-Madison’s human resources department has operated separately from the rest of the UW System. According to Jack O’Meara, a lobbyist representing UW-Madison faculty, this gives the university broad authority to change its employment policies on issues like paid leave. 

O’Meara said the university has drafted a paid parental leave policy and will release it “soon.”

“[The administration is] all on board with supporting strong paid leave, and somebody like Chancellor Mnookin, who came from UCLA and other universities… recognizes the importance of the competitiveness of it along with it just being the right thing to do,” O’Meara said.

Mnookin insists her administration has made “progress” with the UW-System on a paid leave policy and assured the Faculty Senate she will “find a way to do it,” according to Kelly Tyrrell, UW-Madison Director of Media Relations.

However, in an October interview with WKOW, UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas noted there are still complexities that need to be addressed. He said the timeline for implementing the new policy is “uncertain.” 

Referencing data from employee surveys, Tyrrell confirmed paid leave is a “benefit that our employees have been seeking for some time” and that the university has been looking into solutions for several years. As of now, it’s unclear what the university’s next steps will be.

Students helping students

In the absence of university policy, students have turned to each other for support. 

That’s where groups like the Wisconsin Student Parents Organization (WISPO) come in. Founded in August of 2022, WISPO organizes social events, provides parenting resources and advocates for student parents, according to Erin Conley, WISPO’s co-founder. 

“We were really happy when we saw the TAA letter come out,” Conley said. ”We're very thankful for the urgency that they've placed behind this matter.”

As a PhD candidate in UW-Madison’s microbiology program, Conley has had two children during her time in graduate school. Her program’s principal investigator was able to move funds to give Conley six weeks of paid leave, but she considers herself “privileged” and sees her experience as the “best-case scenario.” 

“I’ve spoken with so many parents who have not had the experience I have had,” Conley said. “[They] have been put in a very difficult situation, and their families and have lost health insurance, [they] have lost their place in their academic program, have lost funding,” Conley said.

Volunteers from WISPO have also been key organizers in the TAA’s diaper distribution program. Volunteers give 100 free diapers, per child, per month, to graduate student families in need, according to Denne and Conley. 

“The program needed a lot more support, and so we partnered with [the TAA] to kind of revitalize that program and get it to a much more sustainable place,” Conley said. “I am proud to say that that program is doing really well today and actually is growing literally exponentially every month.”

As momentum continues to build around paid leave, Conley said she believes Mnookin wants to move forward. However, Conley expressed concern about administrative politics getting in the way.

“Everything in academia is wrapped up in so much bureaucracy,” Conley said. “It’s really complex, and I think that unfortunately, it is not going to be an instant fix.”

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Nick Bumgardner

Nick Bumgardner is a staff writer with The Daily Cardinal covering state news and politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickbum_.

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