Lessening the burden in catastrophic times

Heather Roth stands beside her 2-year-old daughter Lucy, who was recently diagnosed with a rare malignant brain tumor. Roth has been able to take time off to care for her daughter thanks to the University of Iowa's catastrophic leave policy.

Heather Roth crouches beside her 2-year-old daughter Lucy, who was recently diagnosed with a rare malignant brain tumor. Roth has been able to take time off to care for her daughter thanks to the University of Iowa's catastrophic leave policy. Photo by Tim Schoon.

When Heather Roth’s 2-year-old daughter Lucy was diagnosed with a rare malignant brain tumor in August, she turned to what was left of her vacation time to be in the hospital with her daughter. Heather, an editorial assistant for the College of Engineering at the University of Iowa, had enough time to get her through August and the first part of September before her leave ran out.

When that happened, the generosity of co-workers and strangers kicked in to help her remain at home with her daughter and 7-year-old son, Jake—even after husband Damien had to return to work.

Heather benefited from a catastrophic leave policy offered to State of Iowa employees and provided through the University of Iowa.

Under catastrophic leave guidelines, eligible employees can donate some or all of the vacation time they’ve already earned to another eligible state employee to use in the event of a catastrophic injury or illness, or to use if a family member has a catastrophic illness or injury.

“This is such a devastating experience. If we had the financial stress on top of it, it would be even worse. We are so grateful for this policy and to the employees who have donated their time.”

—Heather Roth

For the Roth family, the donations have meant Heather was able to remain with Lucy through the rehabilitation that followed a lengthy brain surgery and a stroke that occurred during surgery without enduring the financial loss that comes with unpaid leave.

“Lucy has been through so much and it’s just been this overwhelming experience of helping her recover from her surgery as well as trying to treat her tumor with chemotherapy and other treatments,” Heather says. “This is such a devastating experience. If we had the financial stress on top of it, it would be even worse. We are so grateful for this policy and to the employees who have donated their time.”

If a state or university employee has an injury or illness of their own, the donated catastrophic leave is converted to sick leave for that employee at that employee’s pay rate. When it’s a family member, the donated time is converted to vacation time.

The program started in 2000 as a way to allow employees who can’t work because of injury or illness and have exhausted their own sick leave or vacation time to receive donations from other state employees, according to Richard Saunders, assistant vice president of human resources for the University of Iowa.

Eligible employees are those who accrue vacation and sick time and will be required to miss 30 work days or more because of the illness or injury. They must have exhausted all of their own sick leave and vacation time and must not be receiving any other kind of supplemental payments, such as long-term disability.

For more information on the catastrophic leave policy, a list of people needing donated time, or to find the form to donate some time, visit www.uiowa.edu/
hr/benefits/catastrophic
.

Those interested in donating time can fill out a form located on the human resources website and must designate a recipient of the donated time.

The recipient can be someone the employee knows, but doesn’t have to be, Saunders says. Because it’s a program for state employees, university employees may donate time to someone who works at the Department of Transportation, for instance, or at any other state office. While the donor will know the person to whom the time is donated, recipients have no way of knowing who has donated time unless they’re told by the donor.

“We don’t want to create the kind of situation in a workplace where there is resentment because someone did or didn’t donate time,” Saunders says.

Saunders says there are currently about 130 people on a list waiting for donations. Many of them, however, are running out of donated time.

“Of the people who are university employees, about two-thirds of them need donations and no one is donating at this time,” he says.

That poses another problem, Saunders says. Although there is a list of state employees who are asking for donated time, there is no way of knowing who has time and who is in need of more donations. A caveat of the catastrophic leave policy prohibits employers from creating a “pool” of donated time to disburse to employees as needed. Time must be designated for a specific employee, Saunders says.

For some employees who lose vacation time at the end of the month—some have the maximum amount of time allowed but continue to accrue time, causing some hours to drop off—donating time can be a way of putting that time to good use.

New donations of time are put in the recipient’s file and aren’t taken from the donor’s accrued time until needed, Saunders says. If the time doesn’t get used by the recipient, it doesn’t get taken from the donor’s accrual.

For example, if a recipient has three months’ worth of donated time but returns to work after the second month, none of the time donated for that third month is taken from the donors.