LaborFamily News & Views

How Part-time, Contingent Workers at the University of California won Paid Leave

Cassandra Engeman

By Cassandra Engeman, PhD Candidate, University of California-Santa Barbara

With few exceptions, employers in the United States are not required to provide paid leave benefits to their workforce. This places the US behind many other countries and leaves workers to negotiate for paid leave on an employer-by-employer basis. As a result, only 37% of workers in the US had access to paid personal leave in 2008 and only 15% had paid family leave. Paid leave is a particular problem for part-time workers. In 2011, 75% of full-time workers had paid sick leave, while only 27% of part-time workers had access to paid sick leave.

Academic Student Employees (ASEs) at the University of California work part-time as Teaching Assistants, Graduate Student Instructors, Readers/Graders, and Tutors; they are also hired on an academic term-to-term basis. Prior to 2007, the University operated under policies that assumed a young ASE workforce that miraculously never got sick and didn’t have family to care for. Without sick leave, ASEs had to instruct students while sick or had to rely on the goodwill of their supervisors to be able to stay home. Expecting parents often had to turn down ASE positions for childbirth or to welcome a new child. And ASEs with children struggled to cover costly childcare expenses with their part-time salaries.

In 2007, ASEs at the University of California made family-friendly policies a priority for their union, the UAW Local 2865, and won a set of historic victories. After surveying members and examining other union contracts, the elected bargaining team developed a package of proposals that would provide paid sick leave, paid family leave, and a child care reimbursement program, all of which was adopted into the contract. A key to these victories was strong participation from union members. Workers with children came to bargaining sessions to testify to the university’s lack of family-friendly policies, and members on each of the university’s nine campuses formed delegations to their Chancellors to demand that the University recognize the realities facing its workforce.

Using this combination of research, negotiations, member-to-member mobilization, and membership pressure on the university, the UAW Local 2865, in October 2007, won rights to several types of paid leave and other benefits. Salaried ASEs now have the right to up to two paid sick days per (11-week) quarter or three paid sick days per (16-week) semester. Salaried ASEs can also take up to four weeks of paid childbearing leave and up to two weeks of paid leave for a serious health condition or to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child. They also won paid leave for military service, jury duty, and paid bereavement leave for the death of a family member. The groundbreaking childcare subsidy allows ASEs with non-school age children to receive up to $300/quarter or $400/semester to cover child care costs. In 2010, the union expanded this subsidy to $600/quarter or $900/semester. For each of these rights to leaves and benefits, the definition of family member was broad, including the ASE’s: parent, sibling, parent-in-law, spouse, domestic partner, parent of domestic partner, grandparent, child, including stepchild, foster child, and domestic partner’s child.

The contract victories of the movement for family-friendly policies at the University of California demonstrate that even with one of the largest employers in California, part-time contingent workers can win paid leave and childcare supports through union negotiations and member-to-member mobilization. This was a broad social justice victory. Rights to paid leave and childcare improve the accessibility of higher education and limit the extent to which students must rely on school loans to subsist while pursuing their degrees. It also helps to remove barriers that disproportionately affect women and working class students, demonstrating how central the fight for paid family leave is to rebuilding America’s middle class.

US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2009. “Vacations, Holidays, and Personal Leave: Access, Quantity, Costs, and Trends,” in Program Perspectives 1 (2): 1-4.

US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2011. “News Release: Employee Benefits in the United States – March 2011.” US Department of Labor (USDL-11-1112), July 26. Available at; Accessed December 17, 2011.

Cassandra Engeman is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara and is a member of UAW Local 2865. She is writing her dissertation on union impacts on state-mandated leave benefits in the US.

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