Opinion | How UA is penalizing new parents

UA’s leave policy is egregious. Here’s why.

The University of Alabama’s Division of Student Life website says the office is “committed to diversity, equity and inclusion” as they work to “promote fairness in treatment and access.” 

Unless you’re a full-time staff employee with a newborn infant and no accrued time off. If that’s the case, you’re on your own at the Capstone.

According to the University’s policies and procedures, “If an employee does not have any sick, annual, or compensatory leave time available or has elected not to use such leave time, the remaining leave or portion thereof will be unpaid.” 

In layman’s terms, if a full-time employee eligible for leave has little to no accrued time available, the state of Alabama’s largest university – that boasts the nation’s highest paid college football coach who just led the school to a national championship – offers no assistance, aid, supplemental income or paid parental leave for new parents, resulting in no salary for up to 12 weeks, or shorter, depending on how long the individual can afford to miss work, which for most is not long.

The University does, however, provide ample information about the FMLA entitlement to qualifying employees, a federal law that allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. While this law offers some safeguards to workers, much like the University’s policy, it is severely flawed and underwhelming, lacking the mandate of paid parental leave for eligible workers. According to 2019 data from 41 countries, collected by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. was the only country that provided no legal requirement for paid leave for new parents. 

‘You can have time off, but it will probably be unpaid’

A UA staff member, who agreed to an interview under the protection of anonymity, described the challenges with the problematic and inequitable leave policy.

“I didn’t have the full 12 weeks of paid time off, and at times it was difficult,” she said. “During the first three months after your child is born, most doctors require two postpartum visits for the mother and at least two to three visits for infant checkups.”

She added: “These costs add up, and without the paid time off, you are left in a tough situation to go back to work or be left without needed income.”

Without paid leave time, new parents are faced with a seemingly insurmountable decision: Stay home to take care of their newborn without income and risk financial instability, or forego taking care of your child and return to work after just a few weeks.

Without paid leave time, new parents are faced with a seemingly insurmountable decision: Stay home to take care of their newborn without income and risk financial instability, or forego taking care of your child and return to work after just a few weeks, disrupting the necessary time for bonding and attachment while also risking their health and their newborn’s. 

“If new parents return to work early from the 12-week leave, they have to scramble to find childcare since most daycare centers don’t accept infants younger than three months,” she said. “So if you don’t have family or a strong support system, what do you do?” 

She also expressed concern about using paid time off during the 12 weeks, as health issues often arise for infants sporadically in the following weeks and months.

“If you use all of your sick time while out on FMLA, but then after the 12 weeks you return to work and you or your newborn get sick, you have no time to take off to address the issue,” she said. “You might have the option to take unpaid time off, but only if your immediate supervisor permits it, which is not always the case.”

Shane Dorrill, assistant director of communications at the University, verified this in an email. 

“If an employee exhausts their FMLA entitlement (e.g., 60 workdays per rolling backward 12-month period), then a supervisor may deny a request if the employee does not have any available sick leave or annual leave.” 

This makes the supervisor, and the University writ large, the arbiter of maternal health and newborn care, and it puts the employee in a position of financial precarity. 

It is an abject failure of this university, which lauds its success in academic circles, to be so crudely negligent in its practices, especially when its own school of social work conducts research on the dangers of inadequate maternal health and infant mortality. As a research-based institution that churns out publications at breakneck speed, there is copious data that foregrounds the importance of paid parental leave and demonstrates the benefits for the health of both the mother and the infant. 

If this administration cannot apply its proprietary data to its own policies and practices, the acclaimed research is superfluous and lacks any real impact on change. 

How we stack up

The egregious evil of the University of Alabama not offering some modicum of paid parental leave for its full-time staff employees is that out of the fourteen schools in the Southeastern Conference, we are not alone in this shortcoming. 

There are actually only four colleges in the SEC that offer paid parental leave: Vanderbilt University (two weeks for both parents); University of Florida (up to six weeks offered, but must be paid back after one year); University of Arkansas (four consecutive weeks that can be split up between two parents); and Auburn University (six weeks with 100% salary and benefits).

While this is a great start, we do come up short when compared to the Big Ten schools, which ten out of the 14 ensure paid parental leave, putting the SEC to shame when it comes to prioritizing an inclusive and health-minded environment for its workers. 

If Auburn, our rival competition in athletics, academics, Greek life and charitable giving, can muster up the financial resources to offer six-weeks of paid parental leave for both parents, then so can Alabama. And by not doing so, the University casts new parents as both dispensable and inconvenient to the campus, relegating them below the socially acceptable status of single, childless employees. 

This policy, or the lack thereof, creates a de-facto caste system of UA employees, penalizing those who choose to start a family. 

This workplace exigency must be addressed now, especially since one of the University’s strategic goals is to “Provide opportunities and resources that facilitate work-life balance and enhance the recruitment and retention of outstanding faculty and staff.” 

If the faculty and staff are truly ‘outstanding,’ then treat them as such. Become the fifth SEC school that offers more than the standard 12-week unpaid leave for new parents. 

Do not wait for the slow-moving, dilatory bureaucracies of state and national governments to implement paid parental leave – right this wrong now. The University’s vision to embody the equitable workplace that is “united in its commitment to enhance the quality of life for all Alabamians and the citizens of the nation and the world” cannot be fulfilled. Because the University cannot enhance the quality of life for all Alabamians if it isn’t committed to enhancing the quality of life for its own employees. 

If the University won’t support paid leave for new parents, then its vision and strategic goals are merely empty, symbolic gestures full of incontrovertible falsehoods. And if the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion wants to prioritize these matters, it must effectively attune to the emergent needs of diversity, equity and inclusion.

It’s past time that the school put its money where its mouth is and stops making empty committees and frivolous social action departments that seem to function nominally. They must begin to actually do the work of diversity and inclusion. 

Lead from the front. Amend policy. End the penalty for pregnancy.

Editor’s notes: SEC Schools without paid leave include The University of Alabama, Texas A&M University, University of Georgia, Louisiana State University, University of Mississippi, Mississippi State, University of South Carolina, University of Kentucky, University of Missouri and University of Tennessee. 

An open records request was made to The University of Alabama for the total number of employees who went on paid and unpaid leave for childbirth in past years, and any correspondence between UA Human Resources and the Provost’s office about the unpaid leave policy. Both requests were unfulfilled, per the UA Strategic Communications Office.