As the endowment shrank rapidly in the spring of 2009, the University created what it termed the Voluntary Separation Program, offering employees who had worked at Wesleyan for 15 years or more the opportunity to leave their jobs with a Voluntary Separation Package (VSP), which included continuing benefits. VSPs were initially offered to certain non-union administrative staff; last fall, the program was expanded to include all members of Secretary/Clerical and Physical Plant Unions (collectively the Office & Professional Employees International Union [OPEIU] Local No 153). Of the 96 eligible unionized employees, 26 accepted the package, 16 were from the Secretary/Clerical union and 10 were from the Physical Plant union. Eight non-unionized administrative staff members also accepted the package at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year.
“When we heard that the VSPs were being offered, the University told us at that time that they were not offering it to union staff,” said Migdalia Pinkney, Chief Steward of the OPEIU at Wesleyan and Administrative Assistant for the Center for Community Partnerships. “And so, because we were afraid that people were going to be laid off, we asked that they offer it to union members before it came to that point.”
Following this request, Human Resources acted quickly to offer similar packages to union members, and sent out letters to all eligible employees on Sept. 11, 2009. Responses were due on Oct. 31, after which employees who had accepted the package were allowed a 7-day period to change their minds.
“We are sensitive to these issues, so we have links of communication with unions,” said Julia Hicks, Director of Human Resources. “We realized that we have people who may have wanted to go, and we’d much rather have voluntary separation than lay-offs.”
Pinkney, who ended up accepting the package, noted that the possibility of staff cuts motivated many union members to request the VSPs.
“For some of us, it was the fear of the unknown,” she said. “Nothing regarding layoffs was ever confirmed by the administration, but with all the information they were sending us about budget cuts, asking departments to cut back, it was apparent, based on communications, that the largest cost to the University was salaries.”
Some non-unionized administrative staff apparently expressed the same concerns when the package was offered to them. Shirley Lawrence, who left the East Asian Studies Department on Dec. 21, shared some of these concerns with her colleagues.
“In a way, Voluntary Separation was each person deciding their own financial future,” said Professor Vera Schwarcz, Chair of the East Asian Studies Department. “I think that Shirley made a decision that was based on her own calculus, but I think what’s hard to grasp for everyone is that it is voluntary. It’s about interpretation, and during a financial crisis some people might see themselves more at risk, and that’s understandable.”
According to the Administration, however, those who were offered the VSPs were the least likely to be laid off.
“All of the VSP participants work in the union, which gives them certain rights because of their seniority,” said John Meerts, Vice President for Finance and Administration. “If there were lay-offs, then the ones that would be vulnerable wouldn’t be them, but the ones that haven’t been as Wesleyan for as long. I can’t actually conceive of a situation where a person eligible for the VSPs would have been laid off.”
By contrast, Yale University recently announced that it will lay-off several members of their staff to recover from its own budget crisis. Yale President Richard C. Levin also announced that Yale will be freezing some salaries, deferring raises, and even reducing to number of admitted graduate students by 10-15 percent.
Although the program has been quite successful, Wesleyan has also implemented departmental reorganizations that have resulted in a reduction of staff.
“There’s a distinction to be made here,” Meerts said. “Have some people lost their jobs that would have preferred to stay? Yes. Some people have had to leave because we were able to reorganize departments. However, we have not done a traditional lay-off situation that many corporations and factories have had to do over the past year. A vast majority of the separation has been done through the VSPs.”
To fill those positions left vacant by staff members who accepted the VSPs, the University is inviting employees in different departments to apply. No outside hiring will take place at this time.
“I do believe that the University will find ways to get the work done,” Pinkney said. “The administrative assistants I know will go above and beyond what they’re asked to do to get the work done. The challenge is how to retrain everyone to get used to the new environment and find innovative ways to do that work.”
Lisa Calhoun, who left the Events and Scheduling Department to take over Lawrence’s position in the East Asian Studies department, has used the planning and technical experienced she developed at her last position to adjust to her new job.
“I have found this to be a very smooth transition. I’ve actually been able to update and streamline the process that was already here,” said Calhoun. “I was lucky to have the first couple weeks in January to have that time to update and organize things in a way that makes it easy.”
Pinkney expressed that she is both excited and apprehensive about leaving the University after nearly 18 years.
“I know that even though those of us who took the package did so voluntarily and are looking forward to this new phase in our lives, it is a bittersweet feeling because for most of us, Wesleyan has become more than a profession or job,” she said. “It will be sad to leave those people that we have worked with, the students that we’ve become attached to, but we must move on.”