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Is Postdoc childcare falling through the Cracks?

Results of the BPC Childcare Survey

The results of a recent childcare survey, administered by biomedical postdocs at Penn, indicate that postdocs face significant financial and logistical obstacles in raising and caring for their children. Many postdoc parents feel that Penn and CHOP are doing little to help them handle these challenges, and that any form of help would be an improvement. This begs the question of what really accounts for this institutional failure? Unfortunately, as we found out, it involves many barriers, such as eligibility for discounts at the Penn Children’s Center (The University of Pennsylvania's child care center) (1) and the unique employment status of postdocs.

The waiting list at the Penn Children’s Center is measured in years, not months, indicating there is significant unmet demand for on-campus childcare. However, increasing the number of slots is subject to several constraints. According to one administrator, based on a survey done a few years ago, there is not an available space large enough to house a childcare facility that would be large enough to meet the demand from UPenn and CHOP. There are also issues with the insurance costs related to running a large childcare facility.

In the event that a postdoc parent does manage to secure a spot at the Penn Children’s Center, they are not eligible for the sliding scale fees offered to regular employees. (The sliding scale means that Penn employees with household income below a certain level may pay lower fees to the Children’s Center.) The money that offsets these reduced rates comes from a fee that Penn departments pay into a general fund for each employee. However, since postdocs are not classified as employees, no one is paying into the fund on their behalf so they are excluded from this benefit.

Many employers offer Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts, which allow parents to set aside “pre-tax” money (i.e. money that is not counted as income by the federal government for tax purposes) to be used for childcare expenses, slightly reducing the income tax paid by the parent. However, because postdocs are not employees who have taxes withheld, they are not eligible for these accounts. Furthermore, even if a postdoc has a spouse who is eligible for a Dependent Care Account or tax credit through their own job, both of these programs require two fully employed spouses. The fact that postdocs are paid a stipend, versus being a salaried employee, might prevent them from qualifying.

A recurring theme is that challenges stem from the fact that postdocs are treated as trainees who receive stipends, not employees who receive salaries. So why are postdocs classified this way? One major reason is that the NIH requires that Kirschstein-NRSA fellows are not treated as employees by the training institution. From the NIH: “Kirschstein-NRSA stipends are not considered salaries. In addition, recipients of Kirschstein-NRSA individual fellowships are not considered to be in an employee-employer relationship with NIH or the sponsoring institution solely as a result of the Kirschstein-NRSA award” 2.

Ostensibly to make it easier for postdocs to accept NRSA awards, Penn has applied this standard to all postdocs.

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By Amanda Zacharias, Ph.D.

azach@mail.med.upenn.edu