Understanding Parental Leave at Davidson, in the National Sphere

Emma Pettit-

As the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) without federally mandated paid parental leave and one of the only countries in the world without it, the United States leaves many states and institutions to determine appropriate policies on their own. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and New York all have policies for paid leave for men and women, and many large companies like Netflix and Google allow for unlimited paid leave up to the discretion of the employee, according to Dr. Gayle Kaufman of the Sociology Department.

States and companies without their own policies rely on the Families and Medical Leave Act, which grants up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave but only applies to workplaces with 50 or more employees.

This act applies to 60% of workers nationally, many of whom cannot afford to take leave without pay and turn to vacation time or sick leave, which is not required by the government and is often unavailable for lower level or hourly wage workers, according to Kaufman. This leaves little room to care for a child if he or she gets sick or needs continued medical check-ups in the first year.

Dr. Rebecca Ruhlen of the Anthropology Department, who is also involved in local campaigns to promote breastfeeding, calls unpaid parental leave a “moot point” as many families cannot afford to take time off without an income.

The worry that paid parental leave will encourage women to take more time off or hurt the economy has not been supported by California’s experience with paid leave or academic research. California’s paid parental leave policy is funded by a payroll tax so the burden does not fall on the employer.  The policy is treated as any other public good and either has a positive or no effect on the economy. Employees return to work at higher rates, and companies are able to retain their already educated employees and support women in reaching higher level positions at a company.

In addition to economic benefits, the health benefits for the child, mother, and father are numerous. A baby’s attachment to its primary caregiver is vital to its healthy normal development. Mothers recover better from pregnancy when granted paid leave and are able to breastfeed with a higher frequency. Additionally, postpartum mental health improves.

Ruhlen shared that “a parent who is caring full-time for a young infant – particularly a lactating birth mother, whose neurobiology is evolutionarily designed to motivate her strongly towards her baby, may find that the prospect of leaving her young infant to return to full-time work feels intensely wrong.”

Kaufman’s research focuses on the effects on parental leave for men and found that “fathers at home alone [on parental leave] show that then they are more confident as fathers. They become the primary caretaker, and they become more equal parents.”

At Davidson, the policy for faculty changed in 2004 from allowing a one course reduction to a two course reduction during the academic year of or immediately following the birth or adoption of a child for pregnant female faculty. Since faculty teach five courses a year, a two course reduction allowed faculty to take an entire semester off and includes a release from responsibilities such as student advising, committee assignments, and department meetings.

Kaufman was involved in the committee of female faculty who advocated for this change by looking at peer institutions parental leave policies and improving Davidson’s policies. For Kaufman, the next step, finalized in August 2016, was to “push to take gender out of it since it’s a problem in same-sex couples and in assuming that women are the ones that do the work.” Additionally, she stated, “When men take leave, there is less reason to discriminate against women” in hiring or promotions. At Davidson, female employees take parental leave at higher rates than their male counterparts, according to HR.

The staff policy was piloted in 2016-17 and has been approved as an ongoing benefit for 2018. Our policy improvements occurred “later than most of our peer institutions” according to Ruhlen.

Davidson staff are eligible for birth or adoptive parental leave if they are the primary caregivers and full-time employees for at least twelve months. The college provides four consecutive weeks of paid parental leave at 100% of regular salary not including overtime.  Benefits continue during this four-week period, and employees are required to return to work upon the completion of their leave.

The policy states, “Failure to return at the conclusion of an approved parental leave or the end of the FMLA … period will be considered a voluntary resignation.”

Jay Pfiefer, Director of Media Relations, reported, “In the pilot period of the staff policy, more than 70% of employees taking parental leave returned to regular employment at the college.”

According to Ruhlen, the difference in policies nationally reflects the inequalities between socioeconomic groups. Ruhlen explained, “parental leave in our society is a decidedly class-driven privilege. High-income parents generally receive more leave; low-income parents often receive none. A shockingly high percentage of low-income working mothers are back on the job within two weeks of having given birth, which is frankly dangerous to their health, particularly if their work involves much standing, let alone heavier labor. The lack of parental leave combined with the scarcity of affordable childcare often pushes low-income women out of the workforce completely and into poverty—an increasingly hazardous shift as our social safety net diminishes.”

Looking at the long-term effects of paid parental leave, Ruhlen emphasized that “for US women, the single strongest predictor of poverty in old age is having a child. Becoming a mother shouldn’t impoverish a woman, especially in a society that simultaneously glorifies motherhood.”