University groups work to ensure employees can use sick leave for unscheduled child care

University groups are looking to clarify language in employee rules and contracts after confusion last winter.

Sarah Vast, Human Resources Assistant for the University of Minnesota, poses for a portrait outside Peik Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 23. Last winter Vast struggled to find child care when schools closed due to extreme cold weather and ended up bringing their child to work at times. Other parents also coordinated when they had difficulty finding child care on short notice. 

Sydni Rose

Sarah Vast, Human Resources Assistant for the University of Minnesota, poses for a portrait outside Peik Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 23. Last winter Vast struggled to find child care when schools closed due to extreme cold weather and ended up bringing their child to work at times. Other parents also coordinated when they had difficulty finding child care on short notice. 

Niamh Coomey

After extreme winter weather caused school and daycare closings earlier this year, groups at the University of Minnesota are making efforts to clarify language ensuring that employees can provide unscheduled care for their children. 

The Civil Service Consultative Committee has drafted language to add to their employee rules that clarifies how sick leave can be used for employees’ children when unscheduled child care is necessary. Hearings for the proposed change will take place early next month. Other groups on campus, such as AFSCME Local 3800, a union of clerical workers on campus, are pushing for similar additions to clarify language in their contracts. 

The proposed language addition to the civil service employee rules would make it clearer that employees can use sick leave to care for children in any instances when unscheduled care is needed.

“Up to two (2) days per incident of approved sick leave may be used to care for an employee’s child in case of an unscheduled school or day care closing,” the proposed addition reads.

This new language would only impact civil service workers, but workers under other job classifications at the University say they struggled with confusion over the rules last winter as well. 

During the last academic year, workers at the University struggled to find last minute child care for their children during school and daycare closures, said AFSCME President Cherrene Horazuk. 

Hourly workers, who often aren’t able to work from home, are impacted the most by extreme weather situations and closures, she said. 

“It’s more challenging for unionized staff and civil service staff to kind of have that flexibility,” she said. “We’re expected to be here.”

Human resource units in different departments were interpreting employee rules differently, Horazuk said, which lead to misunderstandings.

“We were telling our members you can use sick leave in order to deal with school closures or child care issues and they were being told by HR ‘no you can’t,’” she said. “A lot of the departmental HR staff just didn’t know.” 

During contract negotiations with the University, which have been ongoing this semester, AFSCME requested that clarifying language about the use of sick leave and unscheduled child care be added to their contract.

“It’s good to codify it and be more explicit so that people can take the time when needed,” she said.

Some employees had to take their children to work when they were not able to find last minute care.

Sarah Vast, an HR assistant in the College of Education and Human Development and AFSCME member, has a 9-year-old son. Last year, when Vast’s son was in third grade, his school had many closings due to the cold and snow. 

Several of Vast’s coworkers had the same struggle, even coordinating and reserving a meeting room where their children could play together during the work day. 

It helped that their children were older and able to entertain themselves, Vast said, but it was still challenging. 

“It would still be better if the U would close or if they would encourage people to use the time that we’ve earned to have off to take care of our children,” Vast said.

Vast, who worked in the University’s Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility last winter, was familiar with the contract’s language and used a combination of sick leave and vacation time to stay home for several days.

There was still pressure to come to campus though, Vast said, due to their workload and difficulty getting their supervisor to agree to the time off. 

Much of the confusion was the result of varying degrees of institutional knowledge within HR units, Horazuk said. 

“Interpretation of rules, contract language, policies, are really left up to the level of diligence that an HR person might be putting into it or that a supervisor might know about it,” she said. 

If approved in the upcoming hearings, the proposed changes to the civil service employee rules will be provided to President Joan Gabel to be presented to the Board of Regents, potentially at the December meeting, Committee Chair Jean Otto said in an email. 

The changes to AFSCME contracts will go into effect when the entirety of their contract is done being negotiated, Horazuk said. 

The union has also put a proposal forward during contract negotiations for the University regarding closures and how they affect workers. One request within the proposal is that if classes are cancelled due to unsafe conditions, employees are able to decide to work from home.