Last spring, in response to the University’s budget crisis, the Administration implemented the Voluntary Retirement Program, a plan to encourage early retirement of senior staff. 65 non-unionized members of the administrative staff, all of who had been at Wesleyan for more than 15 years were offered Voluntary Separation Packages (VSPs), agreements in which employees leave their jobs with a sizable severance package and continuing benefits. Eight employees accepted, while an undisclosed number lost their jobs as a result of involuntary layoffs. Last month, facing a $5 million budget deficit going into the 2010-2011 academic year, the Administration offered VSPs to 47 administrative assistants and 49 Physical Plant employees. 13 administrative assistants have tentatively accepted.
This Fall, Migdalia Pinkney, Chief Steward of Office & Professional Employees International Union Local No 153, and her Assistant Chief Virginia Harris approached Human Resources to ask for a similar VSP for union staff. Pinkney and Harris were concerned about the possibility of layoffs for their union members. Last month, Human Resources offered VSPs to all Local 153 members who had been employed by the University for 15 years or more.
We approached Human Resources and said, ‘We know you offered a Voluntary Separation Package to Administrative Staff. We suspect that there will be layoffs, and we would like our union people to be offered the same package so that those people who are ready to leave can leave before other people get laid off,” said Harris.
The 47 members of Local 153 who were offered VSPs were asked to accept the package by Oct. 31, though they have through Nov. 7 to change their mind. Human Resources will inform them whether they will be given the packages by Nov. 21.
According to some staff members, there are concerns that if employees choose not to accept the VSP, they may still be laid off. Since 2006, 11 staff members have been laid off; administrators declined to specify how many of these layoffs had occurred since VSPs were introduced. In the months following the original VSP offer, at least one anonymous administrative staff member, who had been working at Wesleyan for 23 years and declined the package, was laid off.
“She didn’t take the package, assuming she was safe because she was a highly valued employee,” said Harris. “Then when she was laid off, she did not get the benefits of the package—she didn’t get severance or extended insurance or any of the things that were in the package.”
East Asian Studies Program Coordinator Shirley Lawrence, who has been working at Wesleyan for 34 years, said that this fear was her primary motivation for accepting the VSP.
“The main reason I took [the voluntary separation package] was concern that if I didn’t, I would get laid off anyway. There was no guarantee that if I didn’t take it I would still have a job,” she said. “It was a hard decision. I was not ready to think about leaving my position.”
Vice President of Finance John Meerts strongly denied any connection between the VSP and layoffs.
“We never ever said if you don’t take [the VSP] then you’re going to get laid off,” he said.
”First of all, it would have been illegal to do that and people were not made eligible [for the VSP on the basis that they would get laid off anyway]. The eligibility rules are based on seniority, so if somebody was laid off involuntarily it was because, for whatever reason, that position was no longer needed.”
Meetings to negotiate VSPs were conducted individually with staff members. According to administrators, this was done to prevent managerial pressure from influencing staff decisions, but the some staff members were bothered that the information about the big picture was missing.
“We specifically made sure that there was no pressure from any management on those people [who were offered the VSP],” said Meerts. “We prohibited people from talking about individual circumstances.’”
Lawrence, however, was bothered by the lack of group consultation.
“It’s been one-on-one so people don’t know [who’s leaving] until they’re gone,” said Lawrence. “You go and email somebody and their name is no longer there. Gone. Disappeared.”
The Administration has not announced any specific plans for another round of involuntary layoffs, though they do acknowledge the role that staff cuts will play in eliminating the University’s deficit.
“If you need to cut five to ten million dollars from the budget and one of your biggest expenditures is salaries, it would be hard not to say that there would be reductions in staff,” Associate Vice President for Finance Nathan Peters said.
The Administration has begun to consolidate administrative staff positions by integrating employees from physically adjacent departments and training them to function on a less specialized scale. A September 11 Report by the Departmental Review Committee termed this process the “Business Center” model.
This process began last week at the Downey House, where the staffs of the English and Classical Studies Departments were merged. Many Administrative Assistants object to such reorganization, fearing that it will negatively affect student services.
“You are not going to, in most cases, be able to see the same person that you saw all the time to take care of your issues,” said Pinkney. “We are not interchangeable—you can’t take one person from one office and place them in another office and expect things to just run smoothly.”
Harris cited dissatisfaction with these departmental reorganizations as one reason some Administrative Assistants chose to accept the VSP.
“A lot of people are taking the [VSP] who really don’t want to leave Wesleyan. In addition to fearing layoffs, [one reason for this] is that the business office model is not how they want to work in the future,” said Harris. “They have now made a determination that they wouldn’t want to work in that kind of situation.”
Lawrence, who is scheduled to leave her position in December, is concerned that her replacement, who will work 75 percent of the time Lawrence did and be paid less, will not have the time and resources to sustain the program at its current level.
“How [is the East Asian Studies Center] going to maintain the level of programming that they have here without the same amount of time?” Lawrence questioned. “It’s bound to impact our academic program, our lectures, and events.”
Administrators, however, maintained that departmental reorganizations will not influence the core academic mission of the University.
“[The jobs being eliminated] are distant from instruction,” President Michael Roth told the Argus. “The core of the education—teaching and research—that’s where we’re not looking.”
Still, both Pinkney and Harris noted that morale among Administrative Assistants seems exceptionally low; Pinkney said that she believes the University is fundamentally changing.
“[Wesleyan] is a very different place than it was five or ten years ago,” she said. “It’s been moving towards more of a corporate model—[the Administration] is only looking at dollars. The rest of us are looking at what this place is going to be like once the dust settles.”