Short-term disability policy “step in right direction”

Karah Kemmerly

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Illustration by Berfield

This year, a short-term disability policy was added to the faculty handbook. The policy, which can be used as a maternity leave policy, was created to address the physical hardships faced by mothers who have just given birth. It was crafted by the 2008 Faculty Fringe Benefits Committee.

The short-term disability policy is separate from the already existing family leave plan, a policy which allows tenure-track faculty members to reduce their course loads to accommodate family responsibilities such as caring for a newborn or sick relative. According to the 2011 faculty handbook, the family leave plan grants faculty members a one course reduction at 95 percent pay and a two course reduction at 75 percent pay.

The short-term disability policy covers physically and mentally disabled faculty members for up to six months. According to federal law, the policy also allows new mothers to take a one-course reduction after they have given birth. Because of the switch to a 3-2 course load and the terms of the family leave policy, a new mother can take a semester (two courses) off with only a five percent pay cut.

Those who wrote the family leave plan hoped to use language that would not exclude men or adoptive parents. In doing so, they did not address the physical impact of pregnancy.

Assistant Professor of Politics Susanne Beechey was one of the first faculty members to use the new short-term disability policy to take time off after the birth of her son. She discussed the trouble with the  family leave policy via email.

“Whitman was ahead of many schools in long ago instituting gender-neutral family leave but behind in addressing the gendered, physical realities of pregnancy and child birth. This disadvantaged female faculty who bore children,” she said.

Associate Professor of Politics Jeanne Morefield also acknowledged this problem.

“The family leave policy worked well for men and for adoptive parents, but it wasn’t enough for women having babies who couldn’t just spring back to work after giving birth. It also placed a heavy burden on women who were the primary wage earner in their families and who couldn’t afford to take time off,” she said.

Beechey feels that the short-term disability policy has addressed these issues.

“In acknowledging the gendered, physical realities of pregnancy, the new short-term disability policy is a great improvement, of particular value to female junior faculty members. While not perfect, this policy is a big step in the right direction,” she said.

Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn agrees.

“We still have a ways to go before Whitman is as fully family-friendly as it might be: for example, through better provisions for infant and child care. Still, the adoption of the short-term disability policy is an important step in the right direction,” he said in an email.

Assistant Professor of Foreign Languages and Literature – French Sarah Hurlburt, the chair of the 2008 Faculty Fringe Benefits Committee and primary author of the policy, believes that putting a short-term disability policy in the handbook was a natural step for Whitman.

“No one I talked to could remember a medical incident that resulted in a dock of pay. Adding the short-term disability policy to the handbook made official what was already in practice,” she said. “Having a policy on the books is important so that everyone knows the possibilities open to them.”

Like Morefield and Beechey, Hurlburt doesn’t call the policy perfect, but she believes it has made a positive impact.

“When writing the policy, we were trying to do the most good. We weren’t trying to make a statement about a perfect world,” she said.

Hurlburt says that the new policy has greatly improved Whitman’s maternity leave policies in comparison to similar colleges.

“With this policy, Whitman has leap-frogged from the bottom third of the panel of 14 to the top third,” she said.

Beechey has found her time off beneficial.

“Without the new short-term disability policy I would not have been able to take the semester to recover and be with my son. With this policy I will be able to return to the classroom in the spring fully recovered,” she said.

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