Sociology professor Lauren McClain was 20 weeks pregnant when she started her job at Western Kentucky University eight years ago.
McClain remembers it as a stressful time: She had to navigate having her first child without the peace of mind offered by a universitywide paid parental leave policy. Since then, she’s become somewhat of a go-to expert among her peers for advice on the issue.
“People kind of know me as the one to talk to when you’re pregnant,” she said with a laugh.
McClain’s experience recently spurred her to develop an official paid parental leave policy for faculty members at the university. She was assisted by members of the Faculty Senate's Faculty Welfare and Professional Responsibility Committee, which she chairs, and by Tony Glisson, the university's director of human resources, McClain said.
After some discussion among her colleagues at a Faculty Senate meeting Thursday, it won unanimous approval with only a few minor edits. A similar policy for university staff is also under development.
If ultimately approved by the university’s administration, McClain said WKU would be the first public university in Kentucky to have a one-semester paid parental leave policy.
Under the policy, faculty members may take off up to one full semester or 16 consecutive semester weeks that cross terms (for example, if the birth or adoption happens in the middle of one semester.) The request must be made at least 30 days in advance.
The paid leave is awarded separately from any accrued sick or vacation leave balance, and it’s intended to run concurrently with an eligible employee’s leave under the federal Family Medical Leave Act. The policy also provides for work arrangements that allow the affected faculty member to be reassigned to a relevant job assignment – such as research or administrative duties – if necessary.
Full-time faculty members are automatically eligible for this benefit and there is no waiting period. Part-time faculty, however, must have been employed for one full semester (either spring or fall) to be eligible.
If both parents are WKU employees, they may choose to take the paid leave independent of each other.
A faculty member’s pay during the leave period is based on their regular base salary or base hourly rate. For part-time faculty, their pay is based on the most common number of classes they taught in the past two academic years, the policy reads.
McClain said the policy is meant to promote consistency and clarity across campus. Previously, faculty members have had to work out a deal with their department head, McClain said. The ad hoc arrangements vary widely across campus. Previous attempts to implement such a policy have failed, McClain said.
“The lack of a policy leads to a lot of inequity across campus,” she said.
The United States is one of the only countries in the world that has not passed laws mandating paid maternity leave for employees, according to the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
That’s in the face of the myriad benefits associated with paid parental leave, McClain said.
Those benefits include increased bonding between infants and their parents, increased likelihood of breastfeeding and for breastfeeding for longer periods, lower infant mortality, lower rates of postpartum depression, lower rehospitalization rates for both the mother and the infant, increased father involvement and better co-parenting relationships, among others.
Further, it also increases employee loyalty, McClain said, adding the policy could be an effective faculty recruitment and retention tool for WKU.
“We have lost people who were good faculty members because we didn’t have a parental leave policy,” McClain said.
If ultimately approved by the university, McClain said the move would show that “the university does care about our lives beyond what we do inside the walls of the university.”
The policy will next go to the office of WKU’s provost and reviewed by the university’s Council of Academic Deans, WKU spokesman Bob Skipper wrote in an email. The Council can request a longer review period and may table the draft for continued review at a future meeting date, he wrote.
“Once the Council completes its review, any recommended edits will be returned to the Faculty Senate for consideration, and the steps above are repeated until both groups agree on a final draft. When the Council and Senate have come to an agreement, that draft will move forward to the President’s Cabinet for final review/approval. … At such time as all levels of governance reach an agreement, the draft would become policy. There is no set time frame in which this is to be accomplished,” Skipper wrote.