Family leave for graduate students: how does it work at your school?

I am trying to understand how family leave works for graduate students at different schools. More specifically, I am interested in how the finances for family leave work. Graduate students at Rutgers (as at many schools) are covered by a union contract. The contract specifies that in case of a pregnancy, the mother can take 6 weeks of paid leave recovery time plus an additional 8 weeks of paid leave family time. Non-carrying parents can take 8 weeks of paid leave for family time. While not generous by European standards, it’s better than what I would expect (ah, low expectations) here in the US.

This raises the question of how the university pays for the leave time. Students are either teaching or research assistants. 14 weeks off from teaching might include most of a semester, so the department needs a substitute. Trying to give the student an “easy TA” and still expecting them to come and teach when they are entitled to the leave is shady (although I have heard this idea floated). If they are paid through a grant, how should the leave time be charged?

I recently contacted authorities at Rutgers about this, and their response was not encouraging. Rutgers foists all charges off onto the department or grant/PI. If you are a TA and have a baby, the department is on the hook, financially, for finding a replacement. If you are a research assistant, they just charge the paid leave to the grant, as per the fringe rules in OMB Circular A-21.

I wrote a letter back about how disappointing this all is. The current system creates strong incentives for departments and PIs to deny appointments to students who have or may develop family obligations. This lack of support from the University could result in systematic discrimination against student parents. Whether examples of such discrimination exist is not clear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Allocating the financial burden of leave to departments creates great inequities based on department size and budget, and not all departments can “close ranks” so easily.

For PIs covering students on grants with “deliverables,” the system encourages not supporting students on such grants. The rules in OMB Circular A-21 say that costs should be “distributed to all institutional activities in proportion to the relative amount of time or effort actually devoted by the employees.” It also implies that leave time should be charged via fringe benefits and not salary. It’s not entirely clear to be how a particular grant should be charged if a student participant goes on family leave, but the Rutgers policy seems to be to stick it to the PI.

The current situation leaves students in a predicament: when should they tell their advisor or department that they are pregnant? Many students are afraid of retribution or discrimination: I have heard from students that their friends say advisors “don’t like it when their students have kids.” The university’s policy on this issues only serves to legitimize these fears by creating uncertainty for them about whether they will be reappointed.

My question to the readers of this blog is this: how does your university manage paying for family leave for grad students?


Privacy for prescriptions

The NY TImes has an article on how the information on our prescriptions is “a commodity bought and sold in a murky marketplace, often without the patients’ knowledge or permission.” I was informed by UC Berkeley in the spring that some of my information may have been compromised, although only “Social Security numbers, health insurance information and non-treatment medical information,” and not “diagnoses, treatments and therapies.” But in that case it was theft, not out-and-out sale. The Times article suggests that the new health care bill will tighten up some of the information leakage, but I am unconvinced.

Of more interest is the second half of the article, on privacy in the data mining of medical information, which is a topic which is a strong motivator for some of the research I’m working on now. I’m not too comforted by pronouncements from industry people:

“Data stripped of patient identity is an important alternative in health research and managing quality of care,” said Randy Frankel, an IMS vice president. As for the ability to put the names back on anonymous data, he said IMS has “multiple encryptions and various ways of separating information to prevent a patient from being re-identified”

IMS Health reported operating revenue of $1.05 billion in the first half of 2009, down 10.6 percent from the period a year earlier. Mr. Frankel said he did not expect growing awareness of privacy issues to affect the business.

There’s no incentive to develop real privacy-preservation systems if you make money like that and don’t think that pressure is going to change your model. As far as the vague handwaving of “multiple encryptions and… separating information,” color me unconvinced again.

I think it’s time for a new take on privacy laws and technologies.