Politics of the Parental Leave pt 3

The family medical leave act of 1993 was supposed to be an important victory for labor rights and more specifically for working families. It was the only significant legislative act focused on parental rights in the workplace since the 1978 pregnancy discrimination act permitted women to take six weeks off from work after giving birth.  1  By contrast the FMLA granted both male and female workers who were expecting the birth of a new child- or who wanted time off from work to care for severely ill family members or to deal with personal health issues- 12 weeks of leave from work without penalty.

There were, however, stipulations and limits to the law’s application, and these limitations quickly tampered any early beliefs that the FMLA was “the beginning of a new movement to reshape the workplace to reflect the needs of working families.” 2. For example, only companies with 50 or more employees are covered under the act, thus the right to keep your job while on leave to attend to a growing family did not extend to every worksite.  Furthermore employees have to have worked a minimum of twelve months and 1,250 hours to be eligible.  According to national statistics this means that roughly 60% of the workforce (not working women, but of the entire workforce, men and women) is eligible for twelve weeks of parental leave.  3

Of course the most glaring stipulation of the FMLA is that employers are not required to pay employees during their twelve-week leave.  Thus payment or salary benefits while on family or medical leave are, in essence, conceived of as privileges, not as necessities or even rights.  For instance, a 2012 Department of Labor survey on the FMLA concluded that only about one-fifth of work-sites offer paid maternity leave to “all female employees.” A further 35% offered paid leave to “all or most” female workers.  In both examples, the pay that is offered to a worker who is on leave may very well be less than their full pay. 4

The preceding information underscores how ubiquitous the phenomenon of unpaid parental leave is among the 60% of American workers who are eligible for the FMLA.  This is, in fact, the status of many who work in academia as well. After giving birth, many are confronted with the difficult choice of taking a full twelve weeks off with no pay, or returning to work and the payroll earlier.  Stories of childbirth complicating job-security and wage potential are not uncommon despite the FMLA- from stories of tenure-track job offers being rescinded upon requests for parental leave to tales of women feeling like they have to do “make-up” work when they return from leave, the landscape of academia contains numerous cautionary tales regarding the politics of unremunerated labor (or lost jobs) due to pregnancy. 5. Thus, when it comes to childbirth and expectation the image of academics being always afforded better parental leave options and more understanding colleagues than average working-class folks may not be absolutely accurate.

One of the more common solutions that is proposed to academics who decide to have children but whose job only offers unpaid leave- i.e both contract faculty and tenure track faculty at many schools- is to approach one’s department chair or dean about taking on additional course work or service work prior to taking a leave. 6   These “banked” extra work hours then serve as the rationale for continuing to provide some form of payment for the employee while he or she is on leave. In cases where faculty attempt to fulfill extra work hours through service, the problem is one of how to determine what types of service should be equivalent to teaching an extra course, and how that extra work should be recognized and registered officially. This is an issue that I covered briefly in my previous post.  On the other hand, for faculty who perform extra teaching duties in order to be able to take time off with pay, the logistics of banking courses may be more difficult depending on one’s normal teaching load.  For example, In the best case scenario, where an employee is normally required to teach two courses a semester, banking hours in the form of teaching could result in the employee teaching three courses a semester for an entire year.  Thus, after teaching two extra courses over the course of one year, the employee then is entitled to a semester leave with pay.  For faculty who teach in locations where they are already required to teach three courses a semester, however, “banking” enough courses to earn a semester leave with full pay will likely take more than a year of additional courses each semester. In these cases, an employee may be only to teach enough extra classes over the course of the year to earn partial payment for a semester leave.  In other words, if one hopes to bank enough hours to take a semester leave with full pay, one should perhaps begin thinking about and working towards this goal perhaps a year before deciding to get pregnant.

Another contentious aspect about the idea of “banking” hours is that this strategy for securing a paid leave existed prior to the passage of the FMLA and continues to be adopted by scholars who want to take a semester leave for research but do not have a sabbatical on the horizon.  A practice that has traditionally been associated with taking leave from work in general has thus become dressed up anew and harnessed to a narrative of progress for working families.  No pressure is put on universities and colleges and corporations to offer new labor practices.  Consequently the idea that employers are not responsible in any manner for providing employee subsistence after childbirth becomes naturalized, and hence the worker’s “subjection” to market forces goes on being framed as unavoidable and non-injurious. 7  Thus while the strategy of banking courses or service hours helps achieve the practical goal of ensuring a continued salary for many academics who otherwise would not get paid during a parental leave, it also reifies unpaid leave as a type of benefit whose negative impact on families is outweighed by the supposedly transparent logic of wage-labor (i.e. that payment of definite wages can only be exchanged for a quantity of definite labor hours). When we look at parental leave by the numbers, then, and realize that (a) unpaid leaves are numerically more common than paid leaves and (b) that the most consistent answer to this problematic to date has been to recommend expecting parents to bank extra courses or service hours, we also realize that far from clarifying anything about the relationship between wage-labor and reproductive labor the FMLA is sadly just one more body of legislation that has helped confuse and confound the meaning of labor on both sides of the equation.

  1. Lori West Peterson, “Cutting the Meeting Short: Conflicting Narrative Choices in One Woman’s Maternity Leave,” in Sara Hayden and D. Lynn O’Brien Hallstein, eds., Contemplating Maternity in an Era of Choice: Explorations into Discourses of Reproduction, (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010), 228.
  2. Ibid
  3. United States Department of Labor, “Leave Benefits: Family & Medical Leave,” from www.dol.gov/dol/topic/benefits-leave/fmla.htm; see also “FMLA for pregnancy: Frequently Asked Questions,” fmlaonline.com/fmla-pregnancy/
  4. Marisa Torrieri, “Unpaid Maternity Leave: How to Make it Work,” from www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/11/22/unpaid-maternity-leave-how-to-make-it-work/
  5. On rescinded offer, see Karen L. Kelsky, “The Rescinded Offer: Who is in the Wrong?” The Professor is In, at theprofessorisin.com/2014/03/14/the-rescinded-offer-who-is-in-the-wrong/; and Coleen Flaherty, “Negotiated Out of a Job,” Inside Higher Ed, at www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/13/lost-faculty-job-offer-raises-questions-about-negotiation-strategy; on “make-up” work, see Megan Mackenzie, “Academic Parenting 101: Parental Leave Erosion,” at http://duckofminerva.com/2014/04/academic-parenting-101-the-myth-of-parental-leave.html
  6. See, for instance, Torrieri.
  7. Peterson, “Cutting the Meeting Short,” 236.
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Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.