Bias Resistance at SUNY
By Dangler, Jamie F
One university system’s union moves toward paid family leave. Faculty and professional staff at State University of New York campuses know all too well that balancing family life with the demands of an academic career is often a losing battle. Like their counterparts at other academic institutions across the country, they struggle to carve out a satisfying family life in the face of a system that rewards “ideal workers,” to borrow a term from legal scholar Joan Williams’s book Unbending Gender: Why Work and Family Conflict and What to Do About It. Williams characterizes ideal workers as those whose commitment to work is demonstrated by long hours and few, if any, visible distractions.
Over the past seven years, a growing movement within United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents 35,000 academics and professionals at thirty-three SUNY institutions, has put paid family leave on the collective bargaining agenda. A SUNY- wide paid family leave policy is one of several family-friendly policies that could take us a long way toward the elusive work-life balance we seek. Ratification of a new collective bargaining agreement in March 2008 took UUP a few steps forward on paid family leave, energizing the membership to press even harder and broaden its approach to securing a more comprehensive policy in the future.
While SUNY still does not offer guaranteed paid family leave for all academic and professional employees, the UUP contract provides a variety of possibilities for securing paid time off in the event of a birth or adoption, if elder care is needed, or if a sick relative requires care. Whether an individual’s family-care needs are accommodated depends on factors that include length of service and previous personal or family-care incidents (which affect the amount of accrued sick or vacation leave people can use for family leave purposes), as well as the “work environment” or “work culture” at the level of the department or office. (SUNY institutions have flexibility in accommodating family-care needs, but it is unevenly applied based on the level of support for meeting such needs at various points in the supervisory chain.)
UUP’s activists are aware of the obstacles that block the policy changes we seek: a tendency to focus on short-term costs rather than longer-term benefits and a cultural mindset that sees family care as an individual problem that should remain invisible in the workplace. I’ve been a full-time faculty member at SUNY for eighteen years and, while I’ve seen some changes that have increased support for workers who are caregivers, the changes have been uneven and remain incomplete.
Most of us continue to face family issues – childbirth, adoption, foster care, elder care, or care of sick relatives and domestic partners – without adequate structural support and often amid hostile work environments. This situation has severe implications for the career development, financial stability, and emotional and physical health of SUNY faculty and staff. Of equal import, as University of California, Berkeley, researchers Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden point out in “Do Babies Matter (Part II)? Closing the Baby Gap” (published in the November-December 2004 issue of Academe), we often let our careers dictate our family-formation patterns, leaving us to subordinate our need for family and our family’s needs to what we perceive as unyielding career obligations.
A Nationwide Problem
Still, there is growing optimism and excitement about the prospects for bringing our academic workplaces into the twenty- first century by compelling employers to accommodate workers’ need to balance work and family. Consistent with nationwide recognition of the need for change, as reflected in the AAUP’s Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work, something new has taken hold at SUNY institutions and within UUR People who previously struggled in isolation have united in a collective effort to press for system-wide changes. The grassroots mobilization of women and men across SUNY campuses has crystallized into a statewide effort to resist what Pennsylvania State University researchers Robert Drago and Carol Colbeck call a “bias against caregiving.” Older cohorts of caregiving women who have spent decades working for change have united with younger cohorts of men and women who seem shocked that their institutions lag behind the economic and cultural realities of their lives. We are seeing a new energy and sense of urgency, born of lived experience and the empowerment made possible by strong unionism. The efforts of UUP leaders to provide the resources needed to sustain a serious campaign for paid family leave and other family-friendly policies have been indispensable to this progress.
In The Mapping Project: Exploring the Terrain of U.S. Colleges and Universities for Faculty and Families, published in 2003 by the Alfred R Sloan Foundation, Drago and Colbeck clarify the bias against caregiving that prevails at academic institutions. (They also wrote about the topic in the September- October 2005 issue of Academe.) Survey research conducted by UUP’s statewide Family Leave Committee in 2002 and more extensive research completed during the 2006-07 academic year verify that SUNY faculty are experiencing all the types of bias against caregiving identified by Drago and Colbeck. Situating our specific experiences at SUNY within the larger dialogue about work-family conflicts in academia has helped UUP develop a clear program of action to address its members’ needs.
First and foremost, we have begun to network across campuses within the SUNY system and to document our experiences, thereby challenging the long-standing notion that family-care “problems” are personal and should be resolved through individual negotiation with supervisors and administrators. Our research has confirmed the precarious position of untenured faculty members and, more generally, faculty members whose colleagues or supervisors perceive requests for flexible work arrangements as appeals for “special favors.”
The Situation at SUNY
SUNY’s patchwork of leave policies allows for tremendous variation in the way academics and professionals are treated when a family-care need occurs. (UUP professionals direct and administer support programs for students and staff, such as residence life, counseling, admissions, financial aid, and computer services.) Accumulated sick time is the primary vehicle for maternity leave for birth mothers. Neither fathers nor adoptive parents of either sex can use their personal sick leave to care for newborns or newly adopted children. Furthermore, recently appointed women who give birth typically do not have enough sick time accrued to take a full six-week leave, which requires about four years of sick leave accruals without depletion because of personal illness.
The recently settled UUP contract allows for thirty “family sick days” a year (up from fifteen in the previous contract), which men and women can use for family care. Adoptive parents, fathers, and those who must care for elderly parents or sick relatives can use these days to meet their family-care responsibilities. While UUP considers this increase in the number of “family sick days” to be a major contract victory, we recognize the need to monitor its impact over the next few years. Because these allowable days are not separate from regular sick leave accruals, newer employees or people who have used sick days for their own illnesses may not have enough sick time accrued to take up to thirty days off with pay when a family-care need arises.
UUP professionals are also entitled to compensatory and vacation time, which they may use for family-care situations. UUP teaching faculty generally do not have compensatory or vacation time. Although teaching faculty and some professionals have flexible schedules during the summer months, which allows them to meet family- care responsibilities without using accrued leave or getting approval from supervisors, this flexibility does not help when a birth, adoption, or family illness occurs during an academic semester. Such occurrences cannot always be “planned away.” Furthermore, some SUNY academics are twelve-month employees who teach a combination of classroom-based and online courses, leaving them little summer flexibility.
Many UUP members rely on unpaid leaves, guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act and enhanced by New York state law, for family care. Our research shows, however, that most cannot afford to lose pay for an extended period. A faculty member who had been at her institution for only a few years and did not have enough accrued sick time for a six-week maternity leave told me that she had to borrow $5,000 “to have a baby” because her only option for time off was unpaid leave.
Many UUP members who responded to the Family Leave Committee’s 2002 survey or who were interviewed or participated in focus groups on family leave during the 2006-07 academic year reported losing considerable income during unpaid leaves and taking less time off than needed for economic reasons. Some said their health suffered when, for example, they returned to the classroom within a week or two of giving birth or trav- eled long distances between teaching days to deal with an elderly parent’s sudden illness. Others reported drop- ping down to a part-time schedule to manage what had become an im- possible situation. Although part- time work might be a positive solu- tion for some people, for others it reduces or eliminates the possibility of maintaining job security, needed income, and a desired career path. Respondents also revealed conflicts with supervisors and colleagues who did not support requests for time off because they worried about having to absorb the workload of those on leave without compensation or consideration of existing work demands. Grassroots Action
Created in 2001, UUP’s statewide Family Leave Committee complements the efforts of the union’s long-standing Women’s Rights and Concerns Committee by facilitating communication across campuses and providing a mechanism for connecting the campus-based work of union members to statewide research and policy initiatives. The fruits of our efforts were clearly visible at UUP’s September 2006 statewide Delegate Assembly. A plenary session keynote address by Vicki Lovell of the Washington-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research focused on family leave, members described their family- care needs and experiences at an open hearing, and a poster session couched UUP’s initiatives in the context of nationwide efforts to advance family leave policies and legislation. The delegate assembly’s focus on family leave at its first meeting of the 2006- 07 academic year set the stage for systematic collection of information and expansion of member support to make paid family leave a major item for the contract negotiations that took place through 2007.
In addition to gaining the use of fifteen additional accrued sick days for family-care purposes, UUP successfully negotiated a new program that allows members to spread the cost of taking unpaid leaves over a longer period of time. The program allows employees to take a pay reduction during a full-time work period in order to receive withheld pay during a later period that would ordinarily be unpaid leave time. This new program can be useful for family-care events that are planned (birth, adoption, scheduled medical treatments) and will avoid the loss of health insurance for what might have been an unpaid leave beyond the twelve weeks during which insurance coverage is protected by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.
While these contract gains fall far short of guaranteed paid family leave for all employees, many family leave activists are encouraged by our success in filling in a few more policy gaps in the patchwork system SUNY offers. We clearly have begun to build momentum and are committed to pressing on. UUP members have become more active in the struggle to make New York the next state to pass legislation that would provide paid family and medical leave to all workers by expanding the state’s Temporary Disability Insurance program to cover time off for care of newborns, newly adopted children, or seriously ill family members. Similar legislation has been adopted in California, Washington, and New Jersey. The family leave movement within UUP has helped us connect with broader public efforts to meet the needs of all workers who struggle to balance work and family life.
We are determined to preclude the need for our members to engage in what Drago and Colbeck identify as “productive bias avoidance,” that is, foregoing marriage or partnering, delaying the birth of children, or deciding not to have a family at all. We are similarly disdainful of “unproductive bias avoidance,” hiding or minimizing family commitments to maintain the appearance of being ideal workers. (Examples of the latter include not asking for parental leave when it is needed or missing children’s important life events because we feel we must be visible at our workplaces so that others will note our dedication.) And we are certainly opposed to the prospect of being unable to respond when our spouses, domestic partners, or elderly relatives have emergencies. In other words, we do not want to encourage bias acceptance, and we cannot accept the possibility that we may have to settle for less in terms of family formation. We must be able to have children and be viable participants in the full range of family relationships that support stable, happy, and productive members of society.
By working though our union, SUNY academics and professionals are opting for “bias resistance.” We are determined to press for changes in policy and attitude that will maintain professional standards of excellence without forcing us to neglect or give up our desired family lives. Nevertheless, our project presents many challenges. We must, of course, demonstrate the benefits that paid family leave will bring to SUNY. These include long-term cost savings through the ability to recruit and retain talented personnel and improved productivity as a result of increased job stability and satisfaction. Rank-and-file members may also need to be convinced that a uniform paid family leave policy potentially benefits all. Since stay-at-home spouses or partners are rare these days, the need for family leave cuts across age groups and ranks in academia. Although women still bear the overwhelming burden of caregiving, cultural and economic changes are bringing more men into active caregiving roles. With increased longevity senior colleagues may well have elder-care demands equal in scope to the child-care obligations of their less senior colleagues.
UUP predicates its work in this area on the assumption that workers in academia need flexibility for family care over the course of our working lives. We need to balance our efforts to be productive teachers, scholars, and professionals with the planned and unplanned events that create and sustain our families. Allowing for this balance is good for us and good for our institutions. Providing paid leave for major familycare episodes – such as birth, adoption, an illness of a family member or domestic partner, or a change in the independent-living capacity of a parent – would take us a long way toward helping SUNY faculty achieve work-life balance. The ratification of UUP’s new contract in March 2008 marked the start of the next phase in our struggle to make SUNY an institution that maximizes its employees’ ability to balance their work and family needs for the benefit of all.
ALTHOUGH PART-TIME WORK MIGHT BE A POSITIVE SOLUTION FOR SOME PEOPLE, FOR OTHERS IT REDUCES OR ELIMINATES THE POSSIBILITY OF MAINTAINING JOB SECURITY, NEEDED INCOME, AND A DESIRED CAREER PATH.
THE FAMILY LEAVE MOVEMENT WITHIN UUP HAS HELPED US CONNECT WITH BROADER PUBLIC EFFORTS TO MEET THE NEEDS OF ALL WORKERS WHO STRUGGLE TO BALANCE WORK AND FAMILY LIFE.
JAMIE F. DANGLER
Bias Resistance at SUNY
Jamie F. Dangler is associate professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Cortland and chair of the statewide Family Leave Committee of United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents academics and professionals at SUNY institutions. She was a member of UUP’s recent contract-negotiations team. Her e- mail address is danglerj@ cortland.edu.
Copyright American Association of University Professors Jul/Aug 2008
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