We Need a Union so that Pregnant Researchers — Like Me — Have More Rights and Protections

by Former UW Researcher

I am a career scientist and was conducting research at the University of Washington for several years. In 2020, just a few months after giving birth to my son, I was let go from my position at the UW School of Medicine. It was a shocking announcement that came with no warning and little empathy for what it would mean to my family. While many who work or study here assume they will always be treated by fair and equitable standards, my experience at UW was far from fair and equal treatment. Mine is yet another example of why researchers need the protection and advocacy that comes from unionization.

My story began a few months before I gave birth when my department began restructuring the research focus of several laboratories, including my own lab performing clinical research. It quickly became clear that in this process, the researchers’ well-being was not a priority for the higher level decision makers.

At first, I had a Lab Director — who knew our research well and had created a good working environment — who proposed to the Department that we hire a new Manager. However, my Department overruled their wish to hire a new Manager and instead sent their own candidate. It was immediately made clear that this new Manager would not be filling that position. And our Lab Director would be replaced as well.

My fellow pro-staff lab mates and I received unclear and vague explanations of what was happening, and our new Lab Manager and Director were unresponsive or avoidant whenever we asked for more information. I was worried about the stability of my job. When I asked if I should look for a new job, my new Director simply stated, “If that’s what you think you should do, then look for a new job.” I was appalled, and so were my co-workers. We had been a team that worked collaboratively and well together for several years. Now, all of that was being put in jeopardy.

Initially, despite the changes to my lab’s leadership, it seemed my pregnancy would be accommodated. I was allowed to work from home like many others who were working remotely due to COVID (at the time, COVID’s impacts on pregnancy were unknown). My benefits were settled. I’d first go on unpaid Family Medical Leave with sick leave and vacation days paying out during this time, and then I’d switch to Paid Family Medical Leave. A similar set up had been used for another unionized, classified staff researcher in my department without any problems.

My child was born in spring 2020 and had health concerns, which compounded the standard stress of caring for a newborn. However, I was thankful for my work arrangement and parental leave.

But then, just a month later, I got a text from my new Lab Director: “We need to talk.”

My stress went through the roof. I responded, “I’m a new mom, I’m emotional and tired. This text makes me nervous, can you elaborate?”

“Set up a time so we can talk.”

I tried to find out in advance what was happening from my department’s Human Resources. Their response was a condescending — “I’m sure it will be fine.” It was not fine.

When I finally got an answer from the Director, I was told my appointment was not being renewed due to financial reasons. Everyone in my lab who did not have union representation — just the professional staff researchers — were let go. I was, for all intents and purposes, laid off while on maternity leave. After holding my UW staff position for several years, I suddenly lost access to my salary and health insurance, impacting our family as we had multiple appointments for our newborn’s health issues.

I do not know if I will ever work at UW again. Certainly not in basic research. I clearly needed more protections than researchers at my level received. This is a personal blow for me — but also for UW, which loses some of its diversity, institutional knowledge and high ideals when women are pushed out. A professional staff researcher union — an organized group with clearly defined rights and protections, as well as trained elected peer advocates to help — would have helped me. There may have not been a guarantee of a job, but my colleagues and I would have had the power to demand real answers and recourse.

Researchers need the protections and advocacy that comes from unionization. Lacking the power to demand this kind of accountability hurts all non-union employees, but it disproportionately impacts women. Like countless other women who have experienced job loss, particularly at a critical time like pregnancy or childbirth. It’s 2021: unionizing has the power to bring this institution to a more equitable and enlightened place.

We are UW Research Scientists & Engineers, Coordinators and Consultants (Researchers) forming a union to improve working conditions and increase equity for all.

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