In response to concerns about gaps in the University of Minnesota’s parental leave policy, some students are pushing for changes to make the policy more equitable.
The Council of Graduate Students (COGS) requested last month that the University adjust its parental leave policy, which currently leaves out LGBTQ individuals, fellowship students and births outside the academic year.
“The way I see this resolution is we’re asking for some gaps to be closed that really should’ve closed a long time ago,” said COGS officer Lauren Mitchell.
COGS has spoken with University officials and worked with the University’s Office of Human Resources, said Veronica Postal, COGS Graduate Education Council Representative. A series of meetings with University stakeholders are planned, but University officials haven’t committed to making changes yet, Postal said.
“They’re all sympathetic … [but] each of them think that some other department or some other branch is responsible for it,” Postal said. “No one is taking ownership of this.”
When contacted by the Minnesota Daily, the University’s Human Resources Department declined to comment on the matter.
One component of the policy COGS would like to see change is gendered language, Postal said.
Under the current policy, female academic employees — like graduate students and professors — are eligible for six weeks of maternity leave after they give birth. Males are eligible for two weeks of paternity leave.
While there is language in the policy that applies to same-sex couples, the procedure is unclear, said Postal.
“We’re worried about, for example … if the partner who is not giving birth would be eligible for paternity leave,” she said.
Additionally, COGS wants the policy to be more inclusive of transgender employees.
“We know of at least one case of a transgender individual who has not gotten a proper leave because of their gender identity, and that’s just reprehensible to me,” Mitchell said.
University Gender and Sexuality Center for Queer and Trans Life Director Stef Wilenchek said they don’t know anyone who’s been directly impacted by the policy, but eliminating that obstacle would benefit the University’s LGBTQ community.
“I do agree that shifting the language would be really helpful,” Wilenchek said. “Consistently running up against barriers … can be exhausting after a while, and it can also lead to lack of access to resources and benefits.”
Making the wording more gender-neutral would put the policy in line with the University’s mission of diversity and equity, they said.
“Language is a big part in how we communicate [those goals],” Wilenchek said.
Additionally, graduate students who have fellowships — an outside-funded research grant — aren’t eligible for leave, Postal said.
Most graduate students have paid positions as teaching assistants or research assistants, Mitchell said. Once they work for the University for nine months, they are eligible for leave.
But students with fellowships aren’t paid by the University and aren’t considered employees, she said, and they aren’t eligible for leave.
“We would like them to recognize [a fellowship] as some sort of employment history,” Postal said. “We think it would benefit the University because [the current policy] discourages students from applying to fellowships, which are external funding.”
COGS members say another major issue in the parental leave policy is the gap when academic employees give birth during breaks.
“[If] you give birth … the day before the start of the term … you’re not eligible for any leave,” Postal said.
In those situations, faculty and graduate students aren’t able to get parental leave because they technically aren’t active University employees during breaks, Postal said. Therefore, the policies don’t apply to them.
Because there isn’t a procedure in place, Postal said she worries this could cause problems for parents.
“The idea that someone would have very different amounts of leave depending on whether they give birth on Aug. 27 or Sept. 7 just doesn’t make sense to me,” Mitchell said.
Many graduate students who don’t have children are taking action because they say they understand the problems faced by those who do.
“I think a lot of us are … putting [ourselves] in those shoes and saying, ‘I wouldn’t want to be impacted by this,’” Mitchell said.
And for Postal, the issue goes beyond fixing one policy.
“It’s an important part of making academia more welcoming towards women,” she said. “I think that is done both by encouraging women that want to have children and men that want to take paternity leave.”