At UW-Madison, a horse gets better parental leave than humans

If you want better benefits, consider changing career paths and species.
An illustration shows a horse wearing a police hat and a necklace that reads “Mom,” all placed within a gilded frame with a dollar sign at the top. Images of roses and diamonds float outside the frame.
Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

If you want better benefits, consider changing career paths and species.

A horse working for UW-Madison earned a benefit that most of her human counterparts at the university don’t: paid parental leave. However, UW-Madison’s administration is hinting that change is on the horizon.

Vetter, one of the UW-Madison Police Department’s two horses in its recently reconstituted mounted unit, gave birth to a foal in March, the department announced in a Facebook post.

“We were pleasantly surprised, but happy to welcome baby Puck into the world,” the post says. “Vetter and Puck are both doing well, and with this turn of events, Vetter will be taking 12 weeks leave to care for her foal.”


UWPD announced the reformation of a mounted unit consisting of two horses, Vetter and Rettke, and accompanying officers last November. The horses have not yet seen real action, as they remain in training.

Vetter’s chance to step away from her work responsibilities without worry and bond with her new child stands in contrast to other, human employees of the University Wisconsin-Madison. For people, the birth or adoption of a child can mean a temporary loss of income right when money and peace of mind are needed most.

For many campus employees, family leave benefits do not exceed the guarantees enforced by law—for now.

Unions and employees are pushing for improvements. Last year, UW-Madison wrapped up a decade-long process of evaluating the issue, and a spokesperson implied in an email to Tone Madison that some sort of paid parental leave will soon be announced.

But, one lucky horse gets to enjoy that benefit now.

For Vetter or worse

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), most employers with at least 50 employees must offer 12 weeks of unpaid time off upon the birth or adoption of a child. To qualify for the time, workers need to have spent over a year on the job.

Wisconsin also has its own FMLA law (WFMLA) that largely mirrors the federal requirements, meaning the two measures are a horse apiece.

Workers may not have the luxury to take the time off the way Vetter has, even after they qualify. Many cannot afford to go 12 weeks without pay and instead cut their leave much shorter, if they take it at all.

And Vetter’s leave is actually more generous than FMLA, because the police department is letting her take all of the time she needs. The mention of 12 weeks off in their Facebook post was intended as a joking reference to FMLA, a spokesperson for UWPD says. 

And her time off will be paid. UWPD does not pay Vetter in dollars. Instead, the department covers her housing, medical care, and all of her meals. Despite her taking these months off of the job, she will not have to worry about starving. Nor will she face eviction, unlike some of her human counterparts in the working world.

Even if you object to the tongue-in-cheek characterization of Vetter as an employee and her time off as paid, you cannot deny that she has received parental leave within her first year with the university, and that most human staff are not guaranteed the same. Vetter has not yet completed her first full year with UWPD (she saddled up in the second half of last year), so she has not, by the human legal standard, earned the leave she is currently enjoying. Her bipedal new hire counterparts could lose their jobs for taking 12 weeks off to welcome a baby into their family within their first year working on the campus.

Even if, in practice, UW-Madison has not terminated or otherwise punished new hires for taking family leave, the fact remains that much of the campus does not offer employees parental leave protections beyond those spelled out in FMLA and WFMLA. New hires may therefore decline to take needed time off for fear of reprisal.


Studies have found many benefits to paying parents to stay home with their children. When California passed its paid parental leave guarantee, the risk of poverty for newborns and their mothers fell by 10 percent and household income grew by four percent. Less-educated and low-income single mothers saw the largest gains.

Another study found that instituting paid parental leave saved babies’ lives. The mortality rate among children four weeks-old and younger fell by over five percent, and by two percent in the case of kids under a year old. The same study found a similar drop in deaths among children under five.

Horsing around

The journey to UW-Madison possibly adopting a paid leave benefit began a decade ago. The issue bounced around the bureaucracy for years before reaching its current precipice of possibly becoming reality.

Campus administrators asked a faculty commission, in 2013, to make recommendations on changes to family leave policy for tenure-track staff, according to a 2016 letter from UW-Madison’s then-provost. Two years later, in 2015, the commission delivered its recommendations. They included a suggestion that the campus’ faculty receive paid time off from teaching following the birth or adoption of a child.

The Faculty Senate, after some discussion about the limited scope of the proposed paid leave benefit, endorsed the recommendations in the 2015 report.

Publicly available University records do not say why the campus did not roll out a paid parental leave policy to the limited group of faculty considered in the 2015 report. The immense benefits to staff and families paled in comparison to the relatively minute cost. The 2015 recommendations estimated that offering PTO for the birth or adoption of a child would cost the institution $640,000 annually, a small figure compared to its budget that year of $2.9 billion.

The provost’s 2016 letter commissioned a group of professors, graduate students, undergraduates, post doctorates, and other university staff to look into paid family leave and offer recommendations as to how the campus should change its policy. The committee, known as the Family Leave Work Group, delivered its findings in a report dated June 2022.

The document contains a dozen recommendations, one of which says that the university should offer at least six weeks of paid parental leave.

“Provide for all employees to receive at least six weeks of fully paid leave after a birth, adoption, or foster placement, separate from other paid leave benefits,” the report says. “All but one of our peer universities provide paid parental leave for employees that does not require the use of vacation or sick leave.”

A horse of a different color

UW-Madison stands nearly alone among top-flight American research universities in neglecting to offer paid parental leave as the unpaid variety goes the way of the horse and buggy.

The work group compared UW-Madison to 10 other campuses with which Wisconsin shares operational information: University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Purdue.

Among this group, only one, Texas, did not offer at least six weeks of paid parental leave to full-time faculty and other staff employed for at least a year. University of Texas at Austin employees hoping to take paid time off to bond with and care for their new child may do so if their coworkers donate their own accrued PTO. Yet even this restrictive, voluntary system is an improvement over UW-Madison’s lack of any kind of paid parental leave for its employees—except if you are a horse, of course.

The campus also stands outside looking in at other area workplaces who offer their employees paid family leave. Epic Systems in Verona gives its staff two weeks of paid parental leave and American Family Insurance in Madison provides four weeks of PTO. The pair combined employ tens of thousands of area workers and are currently hiring, if you want to hitch your horse to that wagon.

Public sector employers in the area have also pulled ahead of the university system in the horse race to offer paid parental leave. Both Dane County and the City of Madison pay new parents to stay home with their children for up to six weeks. The practices began in 2018 and 2019 respectively.

The work group’s report called the UW’s ability to recruit “disadvantaged” by a lack of paid parental leave.

“It is critically important for UW-Madison to prioritize caregiving as an institutional interest as well as a public good, and to create a comprehensive family leave policy that includes paid parental and caregiving leave components,” the report says.

The work group repeatedly states its desire for the campus to institute paid parental leave and improve access to existing benefits through clearer policy. But, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

In absence of top-down guidance, several UW-Madison departments, schools, and colleges have taken it upon themselves to offer additional clarity on when and how employees can take family leave. In a statement, a campus spokesperson confirmed that both “the School of Engineering and the Department of Astronomy in the College of Letters & Science have legacy policies in place for a paid parental leave benefit.”

The statement went on to say that UW-Madison “is continuing to explore” the possibility of granting leave to all of its employees.

Making hay

Paid parental leave is having a moment on the UW-Madison campus.

Not only has the university studied the issue via its report from the work group, but workers have made a renewed push for the benefit in recent weeks and months.

In March and April, the Associated Students of Madison, Faculty Senate, and Academic Staff Assembly passed identical resolutions calling on campus administrators to “follow the recommendations of the Working Group report and implement a fully paid family leave benefit that applies to all employees, including graduate student employees and postdoctoral fellows, and is available immediately to all new employees.”

Workers say they are following the lead of Gov. Tony Evers who, in February, proposed adding a requirement of 12 weeks paid family leave to his budget proposal for the coming cycle, a provision that Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature struck down alongside 500 other budget line items on Tuesday.

“We … are writing this letter to urge you to commit to including paid family and medical leave for faculty, graduate students, and university employees in the UW Madison budget for next year, regardless of whether this provision in Governor Ever’s budget is included in the final version of the [state] budget,” a letter from unions representing UW-Madison workers to the chancellor says.

Nina Denne, a graduate student and recording secretary for the Teaching Assistants Association Local 3220, a union representing graduate student workers on the Madison campus, coordinated the effort to send the letter. She says anecdotes she heard from fellow graduate student workers about their experiences inspired her passion for the issue.

“I’ve heard stories of PI’s saying, ‘you better not get pregnant while you’re in my lab,’” Denne says, using the shorthand “PI” to refer to principal investigators, staff charged with running campus research. “I’ve also received unsolicited advice from PIs who’ve said,  ‘If you do want to get pregnant, you better [complete your preliminary exam] first.’”

The letter raises a number of points in support of its demands, including the fact that graduate students receive a limit of six days paid sick leave, offering little flexibility for these workers who want to take time off to welcome a new baby into their family.

“Graduate students are allowed up to 6 days of paid sick leave, but must take leave without pay for the remaining duration of an appointment after the birth of a child,” the letter says. “Most graduate students cannot afford such a leave and return to work almost immediately, because if they did take an unpaid leave, they would lose their tuition remission, their stipend, and their health insurance.”

Sociology graduate student Jana Saad has lived that experience twice. In her time working for the university as a grad student she has had two children.

After the first, in 2018, she says the lack of a paid leave benefit forced her to whittle away nearly all of her banked paid time off, including sick leave. She felt forced to return to work about a month after giving birth because she could not afford to go without her income.

Following the birth of her second child in 2020, Saad returned to some of her duties six days after delivery. Saad’s partner is also a graduate student worker at the university.

“You just had an infant and that requires a lot of resources,” she says. “We can’t be in a situation where we are staying home without being paid.”

Pony up

UW-Madison administrators declined to make any staff from its Office of Human Resources available for this story. Instead, UW-Madison spokesperson Greg Bump sent a statement.

Chancellor [Jennifer] Mnookin agrees that this is a critical benefit for UW-Madison employees,” the statement says. “More information about paid parental leave is expected to be shared with UW-Madison employees in the coming months.”

Bump’s reference to forthcoming “information about paid parental leave” implies the university intends to offer the benefit soon. But hold your horses. Last year’s Working Group report offers hints that not all university employees will benefit.

Student hourly workers were explicitly excluded from the recommended changes. And academic staff appear poised to enjoy a more generous leave policy.

University administrators asked the Family Leave Work Group to focus “on cost-neutral approaches for non-instructional staff.” Meaning, UW-Madison wanted more options on how to provide family leave benefits without spending additional money on the most straightforward solution: paying workers while they care for kin.

Even if the expansion of paid parental leave does not reach everyone, any change that includes some compensation while on family leave will improve working conditions on campus. The Working Group report says that the current UW-Madison family leave benefits, devoid of additional protections beyond those afforded by FMLA and WFMLA, “creates an uneven playing field.”

“Some employees lack access, including new employees who do not yet qualify for FMLA/WFMLA,” the report says. “Others, such as graduate student assistants, have limited access.”

Recommendations in the report include extending FMLA protections to campus employees who have not yet worked a full year, thus extending Vetter’s benefit to all.

Too much of the future remains conjecture for UW-Madison staff planning families until the university announces its paid leave policy. Until then, staff can only hope that one day their employer might extend to them the same rights as a horse.

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