By: Aleks Zarnitsyn

Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by guest blogger Aleks Zarnitsyn of UIC’s Philosophy program. Aleks examines our current contract to discover what guarantees it secures for grad employees who are also parents, and assesses some of our options for improving working conditions for grad employee moms and dads. This post is a follow-up to Molly McGown’s post about her experiences as a grad employee mother.

Grad students are human, for the most part. Despite various warning, humans, including grad students, procreate.

What parental rights does the GEO contract guarantee?

Your Bare Minimum: two weeks of parental leave without loss of pay immediately following the birth of a child.

This bare minimum does not apply to you if you have not held an active appointment for at least 6 months. Suppose you give birth in during the finals week of your first semester of graduate school. You are not entitled to the bare minimum. Suppose you have a baby in January and you are just starting your second semester of grad school. You are still not entitled to the bare minimum! Assuming that regular appointments start in the middle of August, you are not eligible until mid-February. (Piece of advice: time it very well!)

Only TWO weeks, folks! It should be obvious YOUR and YOUR CHILD’S health requires MORE time. (If you are not convinced, read up on what the first two weeks of maternity are like, or talk to any mother.)

What to do:

1.    Do not have children in grad school. (This option is not on the table when negotiating the next contract. It simply avoids the discussion of the University’s responsibilities to its employees who have children.)

2.    Demand that the 6-month active appointment requirement for parental leave be waived. (The restriction does not make sense in our context and should be eliminated.)

3.    Advocate better maternity leave next time we negotiate our contract, a process which will begin in 2011-12 school year.

Grads at UIUC, through our sister union, UIUC GEO, negotiated a 6-week “parental accommodation” period that is more flexible. Graduate employees at UIUC are entitled to a combination of the 2-week paid bare minimum, combined with 2-week paid sick leave, combined with 2-week unpaid leave approved upon request. See details of their contract here: http://www.uigeo.org/contract/

That is an improvement over your bare minimum, but it could be even better. UIC is subject to the Federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. It provides employees with 12 weeks unpaid leave for each consecutive 12-month period for which eligibility criteria have been met. Eligible individuals are those who have been employed by the University for at least 12 months and who have performed at least 1,250 hours of service during the previous 12-month period.  (Source) If you are on a 50% appointment, you are unlikely to meet the hourly requirement to take advantage of FMLA. But the University could agree to extend FMLA-type benefits to grads by waiving the eligibility requirements. Even supposing we could get that, FMLA provides for UNPAID leave.

A further option is to bargain for paid 12-weeks leave. Obviously, the government recognizes that having maternity leave is a matter of social justice. We can begin to make sure that the university acknowledge this as such.

What about parental benefits beyond leave?

Suppose you have a child despite the warnings about the difficulties. During this difficult time, your contract guarantees the full coverage of the health service fee and full access to Family Medicine Center, Wellness Center, The Counseling Center, The Pharmacy Services, which is currently $100 per semester, and which is waived by the GEO contract. This fee waiver covers basic health services and visits to the Family Medicine Center. Most graduate employees also purchase the CampusCare health benefit as well, at a cost of $276 per semester (the premium is $401 per semester, but last year, GEO won a $125 per semester subsidy for the premium).

But this coverage is only for the student. Enrolled students may sign their children up for CampusCare, but the university provides no subsidy for the additional $538 per semester CampusCare fee. And CampusCare does not pro-rate its premiumx, so even if your child is born during the last week of the semester, you are liable for the entire $538 CampusCare premium.

Graduate employees seeking to cover themselves and one child for one semester can expect to pay $814 in health insurance premiums. The university contributes only $225 per semester in the spring and fall semester to graduate employee health insurance costs, and contributes $0 in the summer.

What other benefits does UIC provide for graduate employees who are parents?

There are some rooms on-campus, designated for young mothers, which is better than nothing, if you have to bring your child to school.

If your child is two years and nine months old, you use UIC’s Children’s Center. (http://www.uic.edu/depts/children/) The current fee range is 86 to 208 dollars per week, and “fees are on a sliding scale based upon each family’s gross income before taxes and other financial resources, such as child support, financial aid, savings, assistance by other family members, incomes from rental property, etc.” (source)

Even at the current lowest rate, the center may cost you 350 dollars a month, which is a very substantial part of your graduate employee income. What can we do?

The university could agree to sponsor assistants’ children at a lower rate, or at no cost. The university could agree to put the limit on the sliding of the scale for the assistants. GEO has in the past asked an assistant’s childcare fee not exceed 5% of the assistant’s salary, but the university has so far not agreed to this.

Conclusion:
At the very least, we should bargain for extending the parental leave for ALL graduate students to paid 6 weeks and possibly to unpaid 12 weeks. Additionally, we should try to secure the limit on the sliding scale for the assistants using the UIC Children’s Center.

These are small concessions to ask from the administration that depends on our work. This work cannot be done at the expense of the health of the families of the assistants. There should be little financial incentive for the university to resist such changes, primarily because very few grad students decide to have children while in graduate school. Moreover, the university community will only benefit by securing these obvious rights for its employees.

Luckily, graduate employees at UIC are represented by a union. This means that we have a binding contract with the university that details the terms and conditions of our employment, but also that our contract is only as good as we make it.

On September 27, GEO will hold its first-ever Teach-In. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and professor of English at UIUC, will provide a keynote – but the event is really about our union and our work here in Chicago. To win the benefits we deserve, such as better benefits for parents, GEO members must work together. On September 27, we will get together to begin to decide how we can make our third contract the best one yet – what do we want? – how can we get it? – what are we willing to do? I hope to see you there.