Evaluating Paid Parental Leave Policies in Higher Education & Academia

The views represented in this post are entirely my own and do not reflect that of my employer, Vanderbilt University. The views expressed in this post also do not reflect those of the Vanderbilt University Staff Advisory Committee, nor do they represent the views of the Parental Leave Subcommittee.


Librarians love serving on worthwhile committees so it should be no surprise to anyone reading this post that I leapt at the opportunity to volunteer to serve on the Parental Leave Subcommittee in Fall 2020. The Parental Leave Subcommittee is a subcommittee of USAC, the University Staff Advisory Council, Vanderbilt University’s staff advisory group to administration. The purpose in forming the Parental Leave Subcommittee was to evaluate Vanderbilt University’s current paid parental leave policy for staff, with the goal of preparing a proposal to present to administration on how to improve upon Vanderbilt’s current policy. My service on this committee became even more timely and relevant when I became pregnant with my first child in September 2020.

A mother holding a  baby in her arms. Photo by Kristina Paukshtite.
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite

Vanderbilt University’s Current Paid Parental Leave Policy

Two (2) Weeks for Staff But One Semester for Faculty

Vanderbilt’s current paid parental leave policy allows staff parents to take two weeks of parental leave with 100% pay following the birth or adoption of a child. Time away from work beyond these two weeks must be cobbled together from a mix of PTO (full pay), short-term disability insurance (66.7% pay) (unpaid status), and unpaid leave (also unpaid status). A result of the current parental leave policy is that only an exempt staff member who has worked at Vanderbilt for more than five years and who has a full PTO bank can receive 8 weeks – the minimum amount of time needed to recover from the vaginal birth of a child according to most medical providers[1] – of leave at 100% pay. That staff member would then return to Vanderbilt with no accrued or banked PTO and would be forced to take unpaid leave to extend their parental leave time for the full sixteen (16) weeks, as permitted under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Tennessee Family and Medical Leave Laws (TMLA), or when the inevitable doctor visits, illnesses, or other life events occur.

To contrast this policy with how Faculty are treated, Vanderbilt’s current paid parental leave policy permits faculty to take a full semester, approximately sixteen (16) weeks, of parental leave with 100% pay following the birth or adoption of a child, the maximum amount of time permitted for leave under FMLA and TMLA. This is a benefit that is nearly eight (8) times greater than that currently granted to staff members.

Administrative Red Tape

The current parental leave policy also requires that staff navigate a complex and burdensome web of policies and procedures related to leave under FMLA and TMLA, short-term disability insurance, and health insurance during the days and weeks following the birth or adoption of a child – a period where efforts should be focused on recovery and bonding. Because current policies and practice rely so heavily on short-term disability insurance, employees who take parental leave often have to coordinate their reduced (66.7%) pay with an outside insurance vendor while also coordinating the payment of health insurance premiums with a different vendor. This model places high administrative burdens, in addition to the financial burden of reduced pay, on new parents during an acutely vulnerable period.

Here is an example checklist put together by a group of staff mothers at Vanderbilt, in an attempt to cobble-together instruction and guidance for new staff moms to follow as they attempt to navigate the administrative red tape:

  • Complete the Medical Leave Request form to request FMLA or Non-FMLA leave
    • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal law that provides employees the right to take a leave of absence for personal or family medical reasons and leave for military families while maintaining job protection.; in order to be paid while on leave, PTO, Parental Leave and/or Short Term Disability will need to be used. FMLA alone does not provide compensation
    • Approval letter will be sent by email once approved
  • Review your PTO balance for your own information as you may want to incorporate PTO in your leave
  • If both parents work at Vanderbilt, both are eligible for the 2 week parental leave, but cannot take it at the same time. Both parents will need to complete the Medical Leave Request form to in order to use Parental Leave
  • Review VU’s Short Term Disability Info
  • Map out a leave timeline that fits your needs and your leave types (example below)
Leave TypeStartEndPaid/Unpaid Status
Parental Leave (2 weeks 100% paid)May 31, 2021June 11, 2021Paid Status
Short Term Disability Insurance (6 weeks paid at 66 2/3% of regular salary, 2 week waiting period to begin STDi)June 14, 2021July 23, 2021Unpaid Status
PTO (2 weeks, 100% paid)July 26, 2021August 6, 2021Paid Status
Unpaid Leave (2 weeks)August 9, 2021August 20, 2021Unpaid Status
Return to workAugust 23, 2021Paid Status
Example Leave Time Schedule
  • Identify your HCM (human capital manager) and share your leave timeline with them so that they can update your status accordingly.
  • If you will be using Short Term Disability, call the University’s STDi vendor 30 days before the expected delivery date of a child
  • Call STDi vendor when baby is born; this will allow them to finalize the claim and get everything processed.
  • When on Short Term Disability/in an unpaid status at Vanderbilt, HR is unable to collect an employee’s portion of insurance premiums; be prepared to be direct billed for those from BenefitExpress.

Other items to consider when expecting a child/becoming a new parent:

Staff Couples Are Prohibited From Taking Paid Leave at the Same Time

Finally, the current policy prohibits staff couples from taking their paid parental leave at the same time, as only the parent designated as the primary caregiver is eligible to utilize parental leave. The first several weeks of parenthood can be very challenging for two caregivers, let alone one. Research has shown that families benefit when both parents are able to be together with the child following a birth or adoption. Beyond the benefits to maternal health that occur with having a partner at home to assist with recovery and care for the child, bonding parent time at home during early infancy is associated with higher female employment, less gender stereotyping, higher life-satisfaction, and better health outcomes for the child.[2]

[1] Note that while the minimum amount of time needed to recover from the vaginal birth of a child is on average eight (8) weeks, the minimum amount of time needed to recover from a caesarean section is twelve (12) weeks. https://familydoctor.org/recovering-from-delivery/; https://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/postpartum/healing-hints-what-postpartum-recovery-is-really-like/; https://www.webmd.com/parenting/baby/recovery-vaginal-delivery#1. It should also be noted that while the minimum amount of time needed to recover from childbirth, according to medical providers, is eight to twelve (8-12) weeks, several studies have contradicted this finding and place recovery time as long as six months to one year.

[2] Willem Adema, Chris Clarke, and Valérie Frey. Paid Parental Leave: Lessons from OECD Countries and Selected U.S. States. OECD Publishing, 2015.

How Does Vanderbilt’s Leave Policies for Staff Compare to the U.S. News 2021 Top 100 National Colleges & Universities?

In order to get a sense of how Vanderbilt compared to other national colleges and universities, I compiled a spreadsheet of the 2021 U.S. News & World Report Top 100 National Colleges & Universities and then set to work with two research assistants to populate the spreadsheet with comparisons of staff paid parental leave time, faculty paid parental leave time, and even state action meant to address gaps in paid parental leave. You can review the totality of my research and findings in this Google sheet: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1sTlVAmXTNOrK2GRT0-9wHKgRawbvelMtEsBtB8dEtAQ/edit?usp=sharing.

If you don’t like spreadsheets or want a quick snapshot of the findings without having to scroll through a list of 100+ schools, here are the highlights:

  • When you combine staff and faculty parental leave time, the average amount of paid parental leave time is seven (7) weeks. If you just look at the top 25 institutions the average amount of paid leave time increases by one week to eight (8) weeks of paid parental leave time.
CalculationFaculty & Staff Paid Leave Time Combined (Weeks)
Overall Average7
Top 25 Average8
Overall Median5
Top 25 Median9
Faculty & Staff Paid Parental Leave Time Combined (Weeks)
  • If you compare staff versus faculty, then the overall average paid parental leave time for staff is four (4) weeks, including at the top 25 institutions.
CalculationStaff Paid Leave Time (Weeks)Faculty Paid Leave Time (Weeks)
Overall Average410
Top 25 Average412
Overall Median28
Top 25 Median216
Staff Paid Parental Leave Time Compared to Faculty Paid Parental Leave Time (Weeks)
  • Finally, there are several schools where faculty and staff are treated equitably and given the same amount of leave time. A few of those schools (but by no means all of them) are the following:
School NamePaid Leave Time (Weeks)
University of Washington While paid leave time is technically 0 weeks, employees can use up to 18 weeks of sick time off with other buckets of accrual time and the majority of employees are able to take a full 18 weeks of fully paid leave18
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)12
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor12
University of Maryland – College Park12
Worcester Polytechnic Institute12
Arizona State University – Tempe12
Johns Hopkins University10
University of Virginia8
University of Florida8
William & Mary8
Northeastern University8
Virginia Tech8
Yeshiva University8
Elon University8
Ohio State University – Columbus6
Purdue University – West Lafayette6
Santa Clara University6
University of Minnesota – Twin Cities6
American University6
Michigan State University6
Stevens Institute of Technology6
Auburn University6
University of Arizona6
Miami University – Oxford6
Saint Louis University6
University of Colorado Boulder6
Schools Where Faculty and Staff Are Treated Equitably and Given the Same Amount of Paid Parental Leave Time

Why are Staff Treated Differently from Faculty When It Comes to Paid Parental Leave?

Faculty births and child placements are no more life-altering than staff births and child placements. Faculty children are no more deserving of parental care, breastfeeding, or bonding time than staff children. If any institution of higher education recognizes the value and medical necessity of paid parental leave for one semester for faculty then the same benefit should be extended to staff parents who experience the exact same medical condition and recovery timeline.

Why Does Paid Parental Leave Matter?

The importance of paid time away from work after the birth or adoption of a child for the health and well-being of the family unit cannot be overstated. Paid leave improves children’s health by giving mothers time to breastfeed, by allowing for more time to go to pediatrician appointments to become fully immunized, and by facilitating family bonding.[1] Paid leave is also associated with lower rates of postpartum depression, psychological distress, and intimate partner violence amongst families with new children.[2] Longer periods of parental leave correlate to better health outcomes for the child and for the parents.[3]

Not only does paid parental leave support the well-being of employees and their families, but there is also evidence that paid leave policies benefit employers as well. More generous paid leave has been shown to increase workforce participation and job retention amongst new mothers.[4] Lowering turnover rates can significantly reduce costs for a university and increase productivity across campus. Studies have shown that the cost of worker turnover averages 25% of an employee’s salary and that, once the empty position is filled, it can take six or more weeks for a new staff person to achieve the productivity of their predecessor.[5] Furthermore, longer durations of paid leave can result in future increased wages and income for mothers, thereby fostering workplace and pay equity for women.[6] Finally, one of Vanderbilt’s own faculty members, Vanderbilt law professor Jennifer Shinall, recently completed a study that was published in the Cornell Law Review where she concluded that “paid family leave programs increased employment rates by up to 1.7 percent, labor market participation up to 5.2 percent and increased the average number of weeks worked by up to two weeks.”[7] In addition, Professor Shinall concluded that “[s]hort-term disability [insurance] did not appear to offer any benefit [to labor market outcomes], and in some areas may have had a slightly negative impact.”[8]

[1] Berger, Lawrence M., Jennifer Hill, and Jane Waldfogel. “Maternity Leave, Early Maternal Employment and Child Health and Development in the US,” The Economic Journal 115, no. 501 (2005): F29-47. Accessed March 4, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3590462.(concluding that American babies whose mothers were back at work within twelve (12) weeks were less likely to get doctors’ visits and immunizations and be breast-fed. This same study showed that infants whose mothers went back to work even earlier than twelve (12) weeks were likely to have more behavioral problems and lower cognitive test scores at age 4.).

[2] Van Niel, Maureen Sayres, Richa Bhatia, Nicholas S. Riano, Ludmila de Faria, Lisa Catapano-Friedman, Simha Ravven, Barbara Weissman, et al. “The Impact of Paid Maternity Leave on the Mental and Physical Health of Mothers and Children: A Review of the Literature and Policy Implications.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry 28, no. 2 (2020): 113–126.

[3] Chatterji, Pinka, and Sara Markowitz. “Does the length of maternity leave affect maternal health?” Southern Economic Journal, vol. 72, no. 1, 2005, p. 16+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A134679941/AONE?u=tel_a_vanderbilt&sid=AONE&xid=bea9f739. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.

[4] Arijit Nandi, Deepa Jahagirdar, Michelle C. Dimitris, Jeremy A. Labrecque, Erin C. Strumpf, Jay S. Kaufman, Ilona Vincent, et al. “The Impact of Parental and Medical Leave Policies on Socioeconomic and Health Outcomes in OECD Countries: A Systematic Review of the Empirical Literature.” The Milbank quarterly 96, no. 3 (2018): 434–471.

[5] Investing in the Future of the Federal Workforce: Paid Parental Leave Improves Recruitment and Retention: Joint Hearing before the Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia of the Committee on Oversight and Government, 2008.

[6] Nandi et.al.

[7] Entman, Liz. Paid family leave, pregnancy accommodation laws boost labor market, myVU, Apr. 29, 2020, available at https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2020/04/29/paid-family-leave-pregnancy-accommodation-laws-boost-labor-market/.

[8] Ibid.

What Can You Do About the Lack of Paid Parental Leave in Higher Education?

If you work in higher education, whether you are faculty (tenured or non-tenured), adjunct, staff (exempt or non-exempt), or some other status then reach out to your Staff Advisory Council and administration and advocate for equitable paid parental leave for all university employees. While you’re busy advocating, feel free to use my spreadsheet and data to make your arguments – just make sure you use the data while it’s current or update it if you don’t stumble across this post until 2022 or later.

I also encourage you to consider signing the Marshall Plan for Moms petition, and then reaching out to your congressional representatives to encourage them to sign onto H. Res. 121 because employees of universities don’t just deserve paid parental leave; every parent in this nation deserves paid parental leave as the United States remains the only country out of the 41 nations of the OECD and the EU without paid parental leave.

Published by Sarah Maginnis

Law Librarian | Author | Content Creator | Coder & Web Developer

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