Debate emerges over proposed cuts to staff benefits

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Emma Discher

A Feb. 13 proposal to adjust faculty and staff benefits led to concern in the community.

Members of the Staff Benefits Committee formed a subcommittee, which will meet regularly to consider options and ultimately make a recommendation to the greater University Senate and the president later this semester.

Members of faculty staff provided a University Senate Benefits Committee PowerPoint from the Feb. 13 meeting to The Hullabaloo that included changes to the sick and vacation policy and the tuition waiver program.

The draft would cut sick leave accrual from one day of leave per month to .75 days per month and introduce an accumulation cap of 90 days. Vacation policy would still be based on years of employment and employees would be given the same number of days, but employees would not be able to carry over as many vacation days as they are allowed to under the current policy.

The PowerPoint states that these sick policy changes would decrease “excessive” absences and costs of replacement employees, and could represent a “$6.2 million potential reduction in liability to the university.” The vacation policy chances would result in a savings of about $2.4 million.

The tuition waiver program currently allows faculty and staff, as well as their dependents, to take classes at Tulane tuition-free. Under the current policy, faculty immediately receives complete coverage upon hire. Staff receives complete coverage after six months of employment; after three years of employment their dependents receive the same.

The new proposal erases the distinction between coverage of faculty and staff and measures their coverage according to years of service. Employees would receive no tuition benefit for their first two years of service. After two years, they would receive 50 percent coverage and, after six or more years, 100 percent coverage.

Employees, dependents, spouses or partners who are already enrolled will not be subject to these changes.

The PowerPoint states that this change could save the university between $600,00 and $1 million.

Vice President for Administrative Services Anne Baños, who presented the proposal for consideration, declined to confirm or deny the specifics of the proposal.

Alysia Loshbaugh, director of budget and financial affairs, who also serves as the Staff Advisory Council Chair, said she was hesitant to share details about the proposal because they are subject to change.

“I don’t want to say something and then have people think that that’s really what’s going to happen, because at this point, I think lots of things are up for discussion,” Loshbaugh said. “The only other thing that I can say is sort of confirm that the initial proposal that we saw did deal with those three particular benefits.”

The proposal draft

Loshbaugh said the university is not currently in a dangerous financial situation, but rather that the proposal draft is a preventative measure partially in regards to President Barack Obama’s August 2013 proposal for the federal government to rate universities based on affordability.

“The university is not in a precarious financial position; our budget is balanced for [fiscal year 2015], which starts July 1 of this year,” Loshbaugh said. “As changes from the federal government may be coming down the line, we’re trying to be proactive and see what are some things that we can do to adjust how we manage ourselves … [to] put the university in a better financial position and to try to keep costs down for students.”

A Senate Benefits Committee interim report by committee chair Leann Meyers stated that President Scott Cowen has spoken about “challenges facing higher education in general, and the concerns for Tulane particularly” to the SBC and at faculty meetings since March 2013. The proposal to change faculty and staff benefits came from the Long Term Planning Committee’s effort to identify ways to increase revenue and decrease spending for the university.

“There have been efforts on many fronts to look at how we can reduce expenses, generate revenue, to continue to operate as effectively as possible without having unnecessary pressures on our constituents or the university operations,” Baños said. “This is just one piece of it. We spend a significant amount of money on benefits, so it’s an obvious area to look at. It is by no means, however, represented as the solution.”

Baños said Tulane is not isolated in considering these changes, as the University of Michigan recently changed retirement and benefit plans and Vanderbilt University has changed its tuition waiver program a few times in recent years. She said these benefits are important to attract qualified staff, but they need to be sustainable.

“This is something that enterprises, institutions, and corporations [face],” Baños said. “This is a big problem, and benefits are an expense … Certainly we’re always committed to trying to keep them as competitive as we possibly can, but we also have to be able to provide them.”

Faculty and staff response

Gary McPherson, the School of Science and Engineering senior associate dean for research and facilities, used the tuition waiver program to send his two children to Tulane. He has worked at Tulane for 44 years and served as an associate dean for 22 years. McPherson is one of many who have expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal.

“I feel that we still are treating our staff much like we were a big box store than as I would think appropriate for a major research university,” McPherson said. “I went to every departmental office in the School of Science and Engineering … and I asked [many] staff members in every office to tell me what they thought … Based on that I decided that I would write a letter to Anne Baños explaining this.”

He also expressed these concerns in an e-mail to Baños.

McPherson said that, though he understood that this proposal draft was still under consideration, he felt that it was bad timing given the introduction of the Kronos time-clock system and the merit-based pay increase freeze.

“I feel for the last 12 months, there’s been a number of changes – the staff benefit [cut proposals] are just one – that have been very demoralizing for our staff,” McPherson said. “When I speak for our staff, I speak for the staff in the School of Science and Engineering and the staff of a number of offices that I work closely with.”

A downtown campus staff member who asked to remain anonymous said the proposal draft would drive away current and prospective employees.

“I see this as exemplifying the economic theory called ‘race to the bottom,’ which means that companies compete with each other by cutting staff, benefits and wages,” the source said. “I think that undermines employee productivity [and] morale. I don’t think that Tulane can compete with any other university … by basically making the positions we have here not as marketable in the job market. I think you’re going to lose the best employees with these benefits.” 

Moving forward

The subcommittee of the Senate Benefits Committee will meet April 4 to formally continue discussion of the proposal draft and create a recommendation.

“The subcommittee will do some work, and they will report back to the senate benefits committee,” Baños said. “There will likely be another meeting of the senate benefits committee later in April and then again, depending on what comes out, there will be subsequent meetings. The idea is to wrap the discussion up by the end of May.”

The subcommittee’s recommendation will be presented to Cowen or president-elect Michael Fitts depending on the end date of the committee’s meeting.