Guest Opinion: Iowa faculty deserve a sick leave bank

Faculty members from the UI Rhetoric Department write about the need for more comprehensive medical-leave benefits and policies.


Nick Rohlman

Icicles form on the Old Capitol on Monday, Jan. 28, 2019.

We are faculty in the Department of Rhetoric writing to draw attention to serious flaws in the university’s current catastrophic medical-leave policy. The problems are highlighted by the situation currently faced by one of our colleagues, a lecturer in rhetoric who was diagnosed with an advanced cancer last autumn. It is just the most recent in a long series of examples of how the current policy hurts sick faculty.

Our colleague is currently receiving treatment, but chemotherapy is exhausting and compromises the immune system, making it impossible for him to teach this semester. But since he has only been a full-time faculty member for two years, he hadn’t accrued enough personal sick leave to bridge the 90-day gap before he can qualify for long-term disability payments, which even then cover only 60 percent of his regular salary. This means that at the same time as he is facing unexpected medical costs and cannot work, his income has become a fraction of his normal salary.

This isn’t just about one faculty member. We know his experience is far from unique. All faculty who suffer catastrophic illness or injury deserve more support from the university — fighting cancer is hard enough without adding the burden of financial strain. That’s why we’re calling on the University of Iowa administration to create a sick-leave bank, such as faculty already have at the University of Northern Iowa, in order to make sure this never happens to any of our colleagues again. But so far they’ve refused to even seriously engage with the issue. We’re asking you, as members of the UI community, to sign our petition calling on College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Dean Joe Kearney, Provost Sue Curry, and President Bruce Harreld to take immediate action.

When he was initially faced with the prospect of a significant gap in income, our colleague attempted to use the existing Catastrophic Leave Policy, which states that university employees who accrue vacation time can donate to coworkers in circumstances like his. What the policy doesn’t state, however, is that only 3 percent of liberal-arts faculty are eligible to accrue vacation leave; the other 97 percent only accumulate sick leave and so are entirely excluded from the policy.

University policy as it stands makes life even harder for people who are already dealing with the stress, pain, and uncertainty of severe illness or injury. The financial strain of going weeks or even months with little pay also creates pressure on sick faculty to risk their health by returning to work before they’re fully recovered, which many end up doing. We believe that faculty undergoing cancer treatment should be able to focus on getting better instead of worrying about how to make ends meet on a fraction of our already low salaries. Until the UI administration agrees to create an inclusive, robust policy to provide support for faculty undergoing medical emergencies, stories like this one will continue to be a regular feature of working at the UI. We need change now — faculty can’t afford to wait.

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