July 25, 2007
By Mary Alice Casey
Faced with the need to reduce and realign its operating budget, Ohio University today announced it would reduce the number of Athens campus maintenance and custodial employees in early September. Human Resources officials informed AFSCME Local 1699 leaders of the layoffs Tuesday morning and shared details with the membership during six meetings for specific employee groups today.
Thirty-two positions are affected, resulting in the anticipated layoff of seven zone maintenance specialists and 17 workers in custodial services. The affected employees have the least seniority in those areas. Eight of the 32 positions are vacant.
However, the number of job losses ultimately could be as few as 10 because of job postings for which the affected employees -- or others they could displace under the union contract -- are eligible to apply. The Athens campus employs about 645 skilled trades and service employees who are represented by AFSCME.
"This was an extremely difficult decision," said Jim Kemper, associate vice president of finance and administration for human resources. "In considering some very tough options for reducing the budget, the hope was to impact people the least. The university has experienced such immense loyalty and trust from its employees, and that makes this very hard."
The university as a whole faces a budget reduction of $2 million during the current fiscal year as a result of rising health care, utility and wage costs. In addition, fewer employees than expected have opted for the Early Retirement Incentive Plan. Support units such as Finance and Administration, which includes the departments of the affected employees, must reduce spending by 1.76 percent this year. In addition to the mandated cuts, which totaled $532,000, the unit reallocated $770,000 to address significant needs.
Vice President for Finance and Administration Bill Decatur said those needs include increasing staff to ensure adequate police department supervision on all shifts; stronger risk management capabilities; better financial analysis; and a review of the administrative and classified compensation structure, which has not occurred since the 1970s.
"We have some areas we just desperately need to shore up," he said, noting that six administrative positions have been created to address these priorities. Offering the need for better risk management as an example, Decatur said the university has the highest rate of workers' compensation claims among public universities in Ohio. If the university lowered that to the statewide average, the savings would amount to $700,000 annually, he said.
Decatur said the number of layoffs could be reduced if additional employees within the maintenance and custodial areas take advantage of the ERIP available until Aug. 31. Of the 84 AFSCME members who qualify for the ERIP, 29 have opted to retire.
During this morning's meeting for zone maintenance employees, Local 1699 President Dave Logan said the union plans to talk with university officials about forgoing a 0.5 percent wage increase that would have bumped AFSCME members' wage hike this year from the negotiated 2.5 percent to 3 percent to match the raise pools for classified and administrative employees. That and other workers' suggestions, such as asking members to take a wage freeze or take one day off each month without pay, could have an impact on job losses, Decatur said.
"I don't want to shut the door on anything," Decatur said. "Those would be base-budget savings that could translate into position savings."
To lessen the impact of the position eliminations, Kemper said, letters notifying affected employees will not go out until Aug. 6, following the close of postings for five vacant positions for which the affected employees are eligible to apply. The employees also are encouraged to apply for an upcoming food service worker training program, qualifying them for nine Dining Services vacancies that will be posted in the near future, Decatur said.
"The university will attempt to mitigate the effects of this reduction in force as much as possible and will work with the union on a regular basis to address concerns," Kemper said in a memo to union leaders.
Likewise, Logan said the union would help the university reorganize the zone maintenance and custodial staffs to distribute workloads in light of staff reductions in those areas.
"The union doesn't feel we can retain our students by lowering our standards," Logan said. "There's nothing more strategic than a clean building and a well-maintained building. We are in discussion with the university about these issues."
The AFSCME contract allows employees to displace other bargaining unit members with less seniority, a process that can take several months. Director of Employee and Labor Relations Linda Lonsinger said the university is committed to working closely with employees and the bargaining unit throughout that process.
"We are going to do everything we can to help people who are transitioning," Lonsinger said. "There are so many really good people who work to their capacity and beyond, and we don't want anyone to think that's not appreciated."
She also noted that the three-year contract AFSCME and the university committed to in February -- which called for members to pay a greater share of health care costs, coming closer to those paid by faculty and non-bargaining unit staff -- helped offset the need for more extensive layoffs.
"The union really worked with the university in negotiations, and it's a given that the job cuts very well could have been more severe had that not been the case," she said.
Employees who ultimately are laid off are eligible for unemployment compensation and also have recall and reinstatement rights under their contract.