Furlough vs. pay low for University employees

As the University addresses budget problems, Bruininks suggests organizing a plan “fairer to all employees.”

Maureen Landsverk

As we scramble to pay the rent, electric and grocery bills, we may forget that our individual finances are probably better off than our countryâÄôs. As the national debt surpasses $12 trillion, Minnesota is keeping pace with its own deficit of almost $1 billion. Of all the penny-pinching options available to state governments, furloughs are among the most highly debated. Between âÄúchop from the topâÄù rallies and faculty protests, mandated unpaid leave is wholly unpopular with workers, though the practice has spread rapidly across the nation. A total of 21 states have either enforced state furlough days or are considering them. Gov. Tim Pawlenty followed suit last year by asking Minnesota state employees to take a total of 24 furlough days during the next two years. âÄúIn tough economic times, corporations need to maintain their investment in research and development and in their assets and must control costs. For the University, its key asset is its people,âÄù said University of Minnesota Vice President Kathryn Brown at a recent Faculty Consultative Committee meeting. Her statement echoes the idea that furlough days may delay or, in some cases, minimize otherwise necessary job cuts and layoffs âÄî the lesser evil, if you will. Correspondingly, University President Bob Bruininks proposed a furlough plan to close the budget gap earlier this month, which included three furlough days for employees across the board with three additional days for administrative staff. He has since revised his proposal to instead simply reduce faculty and administrative salaries sans leave days. This method has been calculated to double the amount of money the University will save over the course of the academic year. However, BruininksâÄô second approach retains the same problem as his first: Many University employees cannot shoulder pay cuts. âÄúWith some of the lowest-paid employees at the University as it is, we canâÄôt take a pay cut,âÄù AFSCME Local 3800 President Phyllis Walker said of her fellow clerical workersâÄô union members at the University. At the end of the day, furloughs and pay cuts are enforced to meet the same objective âÄî money conservation âÄî and, consequently, have the same effect: pay reduction. But which proposal will slice employeesâÄô income the thinnest? The University of Wisconsin, which is imposing an eight-day furlough, has reported a 3 percent pay decrease for employees. Bruininks has swapped administratorsâÄô six-day furlough for a 2.3 percent pay reduction: a louder, but fiscally similar proposal. Moreover, the new plan addresses issues furlough days may have caused, such as how temporarily unmanned positions might affect day-to-day functions of the University or create class scheduling conflicts. Theoretically, furloughs for certain employees could shut down the University during those days. Next door, the University of Wisconsin has described its mandated furlough program as an âÄúadministrative nightmare.âÄù Organizing a plan to fit schedules without the typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. window has turned out to be harder than originally thought. On the other hand, both proposals seem to overlook an obvious snag. Seeing as many faculty positions are federally funded, the reduction of staff hours would have an almost negligible effect on state funding. In fact, it may simply make the University less competitive in future fiscal years, as government grants that arenâÄôt fully used are liable to be discontinued. When institutions do not spend all the federal funds they are granted, they could become less competitive when applying for the next round of grants. If faced with the alternative, it may be acknowledged that slight pay cuts are preferable to permanent job cuts. This said, we must ask if our budgetary problems are so severe as to require that we turn to the layoff fallback. The economy isnâÄôt heading for the up-and-up any time soon âÄî isnâÄôt there a better plan of action? It has been admitted that the second proposal would still only provide a yearlong fix. Can we not find a solution with a little more longevity and one more fiscally feasible for employees? Large-scale adjustments are not the only option in attempted budgetary reduction. At the University of Washington, one department âÄî communications, no less âÄî recently decided to sacrifice office phones as a money-saving alternative. They are conserving an estimated $1,100 per month. In Northfield, Minn., Carleton College saved $75,000 by eliminating select free TV stations from student rooms, while Whittier College in Washington cut back on one day of orientation, banking an extra 50 grand. The downfall of the American economy may actually have a silver lining. Tough times and tighter funds are forcing colleges and Universities to find more innovative ways to save money without sacrificing academics âÄî which is, after all, the goal of any higher education institution. In any case, the last thing academia needs is a pay cut. The future of our society depends on the maintenance and growth of collective knowledge. Perhaps the University should follow the example of other colleges across the country and find other ways to save money, instead of placing the burden on the backs of its workers. Maureen Landsverk welcomes comments at [email protected]