Family leave policies found unclear

By ABBY BIESMAN

News & Features Editor

Since Hopkins currently does not have a clear family leave policy for postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, many are struggling to find a way to balance work and family after having a child. The issue of family leave has gained momentum around the country, and internally, the Hopkins administration is trying to accommodate students.

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are not Hopkins employees in the traditional sense because they are often not paid by the University directly, but rather by external funding sources.

As a result, they are not automatically granted certain benefits, including maternity leave.

“If a student is being paid through a grant that their advisor or principal investigator has from the National Science Foundation, then they’re required to be granted maternity leave,” sociology graduate student Allison Young said.

However, if they are not paid through federal grants, Young explained, then the policies can vary in each case because there are no University-wide guidelines.

The only option for students not given maternity leave is to take an unpaid leave of absence, during which they do not retain University health insurance.

“We can’t actually do a formal leave of absence so that they can maintain pay,” Christine Kavanagh, director for Graduate Academic Affairs in the Whiting School of Engineering, said.

For full-time students, University stipends and outside grants are the main source of income, and there is a restriction on the hours per week a student can work outside Hopkins.

Graduate student and mother Elizabeth Talbert commented on the struggle for graduate students

to take family leave at Hopkins.

“The current lack of policy just makes me very concerned about the general culture surrounding family and academia, especially for graduate students,” Talbert wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Talbert said she has seen people try to hide the fact that they might have a child, or avoid bringing it up with an advisor to prevent accusations of not being devoted enough to one’s studies.

“It creates unnecessary stress in a parent’s life when they have to come back to work too soon after having a child, and pretend that everything is just the same as before,” Talbert wrote.

Talbert did not consider maternity or family leave policies when choosing a graduate school but wishes that she had. After she had her son, she worked with her advisors and the professors she taught for to determine the best course of action. They ended up pairing a month of leave with a TA job that could be completed from home.

Although Talbert continued her studies, she does believe that the policies, or lack thereof, create an unwelcoming environment for women pursuing advanced degrees.

“I don’t think the lack of maternity leave necessarily prohibits women from pursuing degrees, but it definitely sets a hostile tone about parenthood that women experience particularly acutely,” Talbert wrote. “This tone could dissuade women from continuing with their degrees or from pursuing them as ambitiously as they might if they had some support for the first fragile months of parenthood.”

Talbert also thinks the child care facility at Hopkins is too expensive for any graduate student.

Graduate student Alexi Russell served last year as the Work-Life Balance Chair for the Graduate Representative Organization, the graduate student government association. As chair she became involved with the issue of family leave. She learned that by the time graduate students at Homewood receive their degrees, one in four of them will have a child. At the School of Public Health, one in two people will have a child by the time their class receives its degrees.

“We gained some momentum and interest in the project of advocating to the administration for an official policy, but the position ended when the summer came,” Russell wrote in an e-mail to The News-Letter. “A new floating position has been created this year and hopefully the momentum will carry on.”

Kavanagh and Renee Eastwood, director of Graduate Academic Affairs in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, discussed the University’s current process of helping families.

“We should specify too that graduate students and postdocs… are two different populations here and they have different benefits that are associated with their roles,” Eastwood said.

Graduate students are not considered benefit-eligible employees, but postdoctoral fellows are. For postdoctoral fellows, this means they can be granted short term disability benefits, which they use for maternity leave. Although there are two distinct categories, the Administration has tried to have a consistent policy for the two.

In addition to analyzing family leave policies at other universities, the administration also sought input from Hopkins graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

“To have the voices of the students and the postdocs is crucial to the kind of work that we do,” Kavanagh said. “We formed a Parental Concerns Working Group.”

There were three focus groups for people to discuss what was needed and what had to be amended.

“We were able to not only talk about what the needs are here on campus, but we are able to connect them as parents to each other,” Eastwood said.

There is now a Listserv for parents on campus to connect with each other for many purposes, including nanny sharing. There is also now a website created that is still in the process of being perfected, called Family Resources for Students and Postdoctoral Fellows, which Eastwood and Kavanagh recommend using.

Kavanagh and Eastwood also meet with different faculty at the University to help them best aid their students.

“We’re there to assist advisors and departments and chairs, to walk them through the process and talk about what the possibilities are for a leave,” Eastwood said.

The two directors were excited to talk about the changes that are in the process of being made.

“The fact that you had someone come and talk to you about it means that it’s out there and that our messaging is working,” Eastwood said.

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