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Many postdocs face challenges securing parental leave, new report highlights

For postdocs who are preparing to have children, information about parental leave policies can be hard to find. One in 10 postdoc mothers and four in 10 postdoc fathers were not sure whether they were covered by their institutions’ leave policies, according to a recent survey of 741 science and engineering postdocs. Moreover, policies vary by institution and funding source, and human resources (HR) offices sometimes gave postdocs incorrect information, the report documented. “Unfortunately, the reality is [that postdocs] will have to jump through many hoops at many of these institutions to either get a clear answer or just to go through the policies to make their leave happen,” says study author Jessica Lee, a staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, which partnered with the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) to conduct the study.

Of the 66 institutions whose responses to a 2014 NPA survey on institutional benefits were analyzed, 47% provided paid maternity leave to postdocs considered institutional employees. For postdocs supported by institutional training grants and those with their own support but paid through the institution, that number dropped to approximately 40%. Postdocs paid directly by external funders fared the worst, with just 26% of institutions providing paid maternity leave. The possibility for paid paternity leave was slimmer, ranging from 15% to 39% of institutions offering this benefit, depending on postdoc funding source. Given these wide ranges, postdocs need to “really understand their benefits,” says Kathleen Ehm, director of the postdoctoral office at Stony Brook University in New York, who previously worked on institutional parental leave policies as a project manager for the NPA.

For postdocs preparing to have kids, HR is a good place to check in and learn about their options, Lee says. Even though some postdoc respondents said that their institution’s HR office gave them the wrong information, “I wouldn't be afraid to go to them,” she says. “There are a lot of postdocs who don't even realize that HR is a resource at all and find that when they do go there, it's a lot more clear.” But make sure to check a couple sources, she emphasizes. “I just really recommend never taking the first answer as the final answer.”

Postdoc offices, where they exist, are also good places for postdocs to learn about their institution’s policies, Ehm says. The postdoc office’s involvement in HR procedures varies by institution, so postdocs may be directed to another office, but the postdoc office will know where to send them, she notes. Postdocs should also confer with their union representative if they have a union, Lee adds, as well as their funding organization. For example, funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) comes with 8 weeks of paid parental leave—which several NIH-funded survey respondents reported they didn’t know about. “If you had heard it only from the institution, you would have thought that they had nothing,” Lee says. “But if you go to the funder, you might get a different story.”

Those who are choosing where to do a postdoc may benefit from investigating their leave options before committing, even if they are not imminently planning to start a family. Most postdocs are biologically in their prime childbearing years, Ehm points out, so “it behooves them to think about their whole postdoctoral package holistically in terms of where they are in terms of life stage.” Several respondents said they asked postdocs in the labs they were interested in about the principal investigator’s (PI’s) attitude toward parents, or even asked the PI directly, Lee notes, and factored that into their decision. “Doing that research early, that can go a really long way,” Lee says. (According to the survey respondents, PIs for the most part supported their postdocs taking parental leave.)

A PI’s attitude can be particularly important because when institutions didn’t have parental leave policies or the policies were too confusing, postdocs relied on informal leave arrangements negotiated directly with their PIs, the survey revealed. This approach can work out well, but it requires that the postdoc trusts their PI to follow through with the agreement—which doesn’t always happen. Having a written plan for how your work will continue while you’re on leave can help postdoc parents open communication with their PIs and allay PIs’ concerns about a postdoc taking leave, Ehm advises.

Although being a postdoc frequently means dealing with some gray area when it comes to employment, “there are a lot of bedrock legal policies in the HR world about leave and accommodations,” Ehm points out. Federal laws, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), provide safeguards for postdoc parents, so postdocs should know their legal rights, she says. The FMLA guarantees eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave—though, as the report notes, unpaid leave is not a realistic option for many postdocs. Some states offer additional time, but only three—California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—currently offer any paid leave, with New York slated to join them in 2018 and the District of Columbia and Washington state in 2020. Online resources from the NPA and the Center for WorkLife Law are good first steps toward becoming informed, Lee says.

The bottom line, Ehm underscores, is that “no matter how great your policies are, no matter how many great one-sheets an institution has on how to take [parental] leave, every individual postdoc is going to have to be their own best advocate and find out what their own personal situation is going to be.”

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