Gender transition leave rises up Australian union’s agenda

Paid time off for gender affirmation among the latest categories of special purpose leave demanded of universities

July 15, 2021
group known as Pride in Protest  march along parade route from Taylor Square to Hyde Park for  Gender transition leave rises up Australian union’s agenda
Source: Alamy

University of Sydney staff would be entitled to six weeks of annual gender transition leave under benefits sought by its academic union.

Staff could take 30 paid days each year for things such as surgical and hormonal procedures, psychological therapy and “documentation amendment appointments”.

The provision was among a string of new leave entitlements in a log of claims drafted by the Sydney branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

They include paid leave for reproductive health services and six days of menstrual or menopausal leave. “Trade union leave” for industrial relations training would be increased from six to 10 days, while domestic violence leave – already available to permanent and fixed-term staff – would be extended to casual employees.

NTEU branch president Patrick Brownlee said the gender transition leave claim had been discussed with members who had “lived experience” of the issue. “We hope this is something the university will support as we address an important health equity issue,” he said.

The university said it had not received the log of claims but was committed to developing a “balanced, fair and responsible” agreement. Sydney’s spokeswoman said the agreement’s renewal “couldn’t come at a more important time”, with the sector beleaguered by “long-term structural and funding issues” exacerbated by the pandemic.

Gender transition leave is already granted by some Australian employers, with the ABC offering up to 10 days a year. Westpac bank provides a one-off allowance of four weeks’ paid leave plus 11 months unpaid. Computing services company Avanade Australia offers an undetermined period of paid leave, while the Australian Services Union is seeking 20 days a year for transitioning members and five days for their support people.

Universities including Sydney allow staff undergoing gender transition to use personal or special leave. The University of Tasmania grants an additional 10 days of paid leave and plans to formalise it as a stand-alone category in its next staff agreement.

Australian Higher Education Industrial Association executive director Stuart Andrews said he was aware of union claims for gender transition leave at about six universities, usually specifying 20 days a year. He said “ambit” claims for provisions “way beyond community norms” were a “great frustration” for universities, sometimes extending negotiations by years.

Sydney currently provides nine types of paid leave – not counting allowances for vacations, long service, childbirth, childcare and court attendance – which collectively permit up to 72 days of paid time off each year. That figure that would rise to more than 117 days, out of an annual tally of about 260 working days, under the union’s log of claims.

Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones said most leave entitlements were rarely used, but the “proliferation of special purpose categories” meant some employees had “access to comfort in difficult times” while others missed out.

“It would make much more sense to fold them all into a more robust personal leave category,” Dr Babones said. “Unanticipated or even unimagined emergencies that affect people very deeply would still be covered, but on an equitable basis.”

He said gender transition was “one of life’s many challenges”, along with domestic violence, homelessness, mental illness, bereavement, natural disasters and home damage. “We all deal with serious problems, and enumerating them in an enterprise bargaining agreement is poor social policy. We shouldn’t be creating special categories of protected persons.”

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