SUNY Maternity Leave: The Case-by-Case Contract

Inadequate maternity leave has been a matter of debate for prominent American companies like Starbucks and Thinx and wanes in comparison to expansive policies in other countries. The United States remains the only developed country that does not guarantee a paid leave.

For two years, professors at SUNY College of Old Westbury have been advocating for a transparent, progressive leave policy that does not endanger their jobs.

“The problem here is that we don’t have paid maternity leave, that’s a fact, but even worse, FMLA only grants twelve weeks of unpaid leave. So what is a professor to do who needs the whole semester off,” questions Martha Livingston, Vice President of the United University Professions labor union.

Lena Farrugia, Assistant to the Director of Benefits, explains that, under the Family Medical Leave Act, employees who work 1,250 hours per year for at least one year are granted an unpaid maternity leave. This policy falls under that of disability leave as it is “treated the same in terms of eligibility for, or entitlement to, sick leave.” Employees must use their own accrued time off, not including sick leave which is only to be used for medical disability. Old Westbury’s policy states that spouses may take “generally one week” of sick credits immediately after the birth, up to one week.

SUNY Old Westbury Faculty Senate member Laura Chipley notes, “Other corporations have packages that are quite fair and seem to be evolving to emulate other countries’ ways.” Northern European countries rank highest for benefits that include up to 18 weeks off at full pay.

Chipley assisted in writing the 2015 Resolution of Investigating SUNY Family Leave Policies in the hopes that it would better emulate the college’s mission statement of social justice and “empathy, creativity, and intercultural understanding.”

The 2015 resolution points out, “other public university systems such as CUNY have incorporated a paid parental leave policy into their contracts.”

Dr. Jasmine Mitchell, a SUNY Old Westbury professor, feels that, “Coming up with a clear, transparent, and detailed plan for faculty members would help faculty and administrators navigate this path and keep true to SUNY Old Westbury’s core values.”

A SUNY Director of Business Affairs who prefers to remain anonymous confirms that maternity leave is approached on a “case-by-case basis.” She says, “If someone is having a baby, they typically ask something like ‘what do you want to accomplish, what are you thinking?’” Professors must often manipulate their sick time and vacation time and in some cases, she says, other faculty may donate their own accrued paid time off for another professor’s cause.

Livingston explains, “There have been cases on campus where women faculty have tried to make creative uses of time but sometimes admin will say ‘no’ on the basis that someone else may come along wanting the same deal.”

When Professor Chipley gave birth to a baby girl in 2012 and wished to take three months of maternity leave, she faced the challenge Livingston describes. For Chipley, this meant July, August, and September, the first month of the fall semester. As per FMLA guidelines, the expectant mother notified her department chair at the time, Dr. Amanda Frisken, that she was pregnant and would be needing time off.

“She was disappointed to tell me that there was no maternity leave policy for people who were in my situation as adjunct,” Chipley recalls. “The way they calculate it is to look at your ‘contact hours,’ how many hours you’re actually teaching,” Chipley says, a policy that leaves adjunct professors to “fall through the cracks” because they do not meet the 1,250 required hours.

Chipley was disheartened because she had worked for Old Westbury for three years but did not qualify for paid time off with the security of knowing that she would be able to return to her job. “I knew that the college was going to suggest I give up teaching that whole semester and push another adjunct in my place,” Chipley says.

This forced her and the chairperson into what she calls a “shady situation.” “Amanda came up with this remedy which was for me to hire someone to cover my classes for that month and pay them out of pocket, all to avoid taking a formal maternity leave.” Not only did Chipley have to hire her own replacement, but the mother of a newborn and a toddler had to hand over her paycheck directly to her substitute.

“I had Skyped to introduce myself to the class, I created the curriculum, the assignments, and the syllabus, but I just had another person there for four weeks to facilitate the class,” she explains. The operation backfired when a student, disgruntled about having to purchase a fifty-dollar hard drive for the production class, went directly to the Dean of Students to inform him of the matter. “It created a firestorm and I had to return immediately and force the baby into childcare,” she recalls.

Then, the Human Resources department was made aware of the issue.  They attempted to penalize Chipley for the days she was not present in the classroom and sought to count each day as a full paid sick day, which amounted in far more than she had acquired.

“I would’ve actually ended up owing the institution money,” Chipley says. Alongside her chairperson, they negotiated for each class she missed to be counted as only half a day since she was only hired on a half-time basis. Chipley adds, “I was still stripped of the paid sick leave that I had accrued but at least I was not in debt to the college.”

Little did Professor Chipley know, her “stressful scramble,” as she calls it, was foreshadowed in 2008. She was on the other end of the struggle when she filled in for Assistant Professor of American Studies, Samara Smith. Smith was pregnant with a baby boy and was due right around Thanksgiving.

“I tried to plan my pregnancy around the semester,” Smith says. As nature would have it, however, her son was born two months premature, requiring 5 weeks of intensive care. “It was either quit the job or figure out a way to make it work which ended up being sort of unofficial,” Smith explains. Professor Chipley ended the semester for her and Smith returned to her job the next semester. Smith adds, “At this point I had assumed I lost my job but I think they were happy with the person I suggested.”

Dr. Jasmine Mitchell was more successful in timing her pregnancy in accordance to the academic calendar. “I was very fortunate that I had my son in July and my department was very supportive. While the University does have the Family Medical Leave act in place, the ability to take FMLA requires a great deal of flexibility if the term [of pregnancy] does not fit with the academic semester,” Mitchell remarks.

“Furthermore, many women in their childbearing years do not yet have tenure. Stopping the tenure clock would greatly reduce pressure and generate further productivity for all,” says Mitchell.

According to Old Westbury’s Leave for Childbirth, Childcare and Adoption Policy, leave with any less than 100% pay does extend the time before tenure is acquired. As of 2015, this set back fifty one percent of professors on a tenure track and the thirteen percent that had not yet reached it.

“If you’re on a tenure clock, it should be put on hold and even if you’ve just been adjuncting for years, it would be nice to know that if you take a semester or two off for birth, you could still come back,” Professor Smith adds.

When the Faculty Senate’s resolution was established, SUNY Old Westbury had just celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. Professor Chipley mourns, “The college has been operating for many years and all that time female professors have been either losing adjunct jobs or taking sabbaticals to take care of children while their male counterparts are using those sabbaticals to actually develop their own scholarship and their own work.”

As for a solution, the resolution calls for the United University Professions Union (U.U.P.) to report back to the Faculty Senate with specifics of the policy, for the U.U.P. Vice President to conduct a forum to discuss adding paid family leave, and for Old Westbury President, Dr. Butts, to express to the Board of Trustees and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher the faculty’s concerns about their contracts.

Regarding the current status of the resolution, Professor Chipley says, “Unfortunately, it becomes a formality. I noticed that the faculty and administration are on board with the fact that people need maternity leave but at an institutional level nothing has really been done.”

Martha Livingston was unaware of the resolution but says the U.U.P is currently negotiating a new contract with the SUNY system for the upcoming year. “Strengthened family leave policies are one of the things on the table in negotiating with SUNY. That is as much as we can do – saying ‘these are the issues that are important to us.’”

“The two issues that came up as very important statewide are family & medical leave – that we have got to have the ability to have families. They hire young families, so what do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to have babies, says Livingston.

“CUNY did a better job in their last contract and we could do better. The other issues is that we’re very concerned with our adjuncts and contingent professors because they’re the ones with no job security,” Livingston notes.

Chipley explains, “Part of this, I think, is because there is simply no state or national mandate that requires these things yet.”

New York state is currently awaiting a bill to be enacted that would establish a paid family leave program. First signed in 2016, it is expected to “provide financial security to the estimated 6.4 million workers in New York” who currently lack this benefit. The bill should take effect on January 1st, 2018 And grant up to 8 weeks of leave a year. The law will provide job protection and continued health care throughout the leave.

Livingston has her doubts that this will solve SUNY Old Westbury’s plight, however, and has heard rumors that union workers will be exempt from this law