Should the university provide affordable infant and child care for students and faculty? This is precisely the question the Office of the Provost asked in 2007 when it commissioned a study to determine the child care needs of UIC students and faculty. At first glance, it may not seem so obvious that a lack of infant and child care options on campus has costs for us all. But, these costs are real, and they come in many forms, from losses in productivity to missed classes and cancelled office hours. This means students get short changed, graduate students take a longer time to finish their degrees, and faculty make less of a contribution to the university.

For graduate students like me with small children at home, things look even bleaker. A lack of child care options means taking on a second job and missing out on department activities. I know, because over the last few years, I’ve had to do both. For the first two years of my son’s life, in an effort to save money, my partner worked full-time and I stayed home three days a week with our son. On days when I would teach, we hired a babysitter; I returned home in the afternoons immediately after I finished teaching, in order to take care of our boy. I also took on adjunct work, teaching evening classes at local university to make extra money. Needless to say, I made almost no progress toward my degree during those years, and I was rarely able to fulfill my teaching duties in the way I believed the job required. There were many times during these years when I contemplated giving up on my degree and staying home full-time with our kids.

Right now I have two children who need care during the day. For my son, who just turned three, we pay $200 a week to have him in a Montessori program near our home. Granted, there are other, cheaper options, like in-home daycares, but they are marginally cheaper (about $25 less per week) and provide less structure and fewer activities for kids.  For our infant son, we pay a student in our neighborhood to watch and care for him in our home for most of the week. This costs us another $400 per week. If my partner didn’t work full time, too, there’s absolutely no way we could pay for the care of our children on my university wages. And, if we didn’t pay for care, there’s absolutely no way we could both have careers. In other words, without having two incomes it would be impossible to raise our children in Chicago on a TA salary.

I want to be clear, though, that I’m not asking the university to raise my kids or provide me with free child care so that I can be a student and my partner can work. What I’m asking for is an affordable on-campus option that’s good for employees, students, and our children. With the number of education, nursing, and social work programs at UIC, it seem entirely possible to provide world class child-care options while also educating the next generation of educators, nurses, and social workers.

And, it appears that I’m not alone when it comes to facing these difficult choices between quality child care and professional obligations. According to UIC’s Ad Hoc Committee on Infant and Child Care, 40 percent of graduate students reported taking an additional job in order to pay for child care costs, while 77 percent reported missing out on opportunities to participate in their departments. This means a degraded academic culture and lost opportunities for all.

According to the same 2007 report mentioned above, providing infant and child care at UIC would “improve recruitment and retention, it would also benefit from increased productivity and a reduction of time lost due to faculty and staff absences related to child-care issues.” Not to mention lower stress levels for 80 percent of graduate students and 70 percent of faculty with infants or small children.

The university’s own report, then, identified the costs of not having affordable infant and child care options available on campus. This same 2007 report made specific recommendations to the Office of the Provost to radically expand infant and child care options at UIC. So, what’s happened? In short, nothing.

To be fair, though, UIC does offer on-campus child care for the children of employees and students—as long as the children are at least two years nine months and fully potty trained and you can afford the cost (about $200 per week for most employees and on a sliding scale for students). On the face of it, we might think this isn’t such a bad deal. After all, there’s at least an on campus option for child care, right? The question, however, for employees like me, is what to do for the first two years and nine months of my child’s life. Is it possible to raise your children and still pursue a professional degree? Let’s just say that it would be far more possible for far more people, if all UIC employees were paid a living wage and if UIC provided affordable care options for all employees and students who need it.

So, what actually happens now that my son has turned the requisite two years and nine months and finally qualifies for the UIC on-camps care? It turns out that there’s a waiting list to get in to the on-campus program. UIC’s child care facility can only accommodate 96 children, while back in 2007 the report noted that demand for child care was topping 400. Where might we put the additional 304 infants and toddlers who can’t be enrolled in our on-campus child care center? One idea: How about the Office of the Provost?

-Brian Charest, TA in the Department of English

***All statistics quoted above are from the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Infant Care at UIC: http://www.uic.edu/depts/oaa/childcare.html

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.