Staff Editorial: Employee furlough plan illustrates budget difficulties

Managing a university budget in a pandemic with minimal harm is a significant challenge

Staff Editorial: Employee furlough plan illustrates budget difficulties

On Monday Sept. 21, American University announced in an email to the AU community that there would be a change to the employee furlough plan. In June, it announced that there would be a week-long furlough of employees making $40,000 or more in January during the winter break. As reported by The Eagle, now employees have between Nov. 1, 2020, and March 12, 2021, for their five-day furlough, which can be on non-consecutive days. There are over 2,500 employees who will be furloughed, according to Matthew Bennett, AU’s vice president and chief communications officer.

The University also announced in the email that it would suspend matching contributions to employees’ retirement funds through July 31, 2021 (AU originally announced only a six-month suspension). Another key announcement in the email was that more University leaders, including deans, former deans that are now faculty, former provosts and the former president, will reduce their compensation. This is alongside President Sylvia Burwell and her cabinet that have already taken salary reductions.

All of these salary and furlough decisions have been made in light of the expected $116 million budget loss for the 2021 fiscal year.

The coronavirus pandemic has had, and continues to have, devastating economic consequences around the world. There have been significant losses in a variety of industries, but the effects that the pandemic have on higher education may be the most permanent. With university responses moving between in-person and online classes, it has become clear that universities have not been prepared for a global situation like this. Many schools are dealing with significant budget losses. George Washington University, which is regarded as a peer institution to AU, and is also utilizing fully online classes for the fall semester, has laid off about 250 employees, according to reporting by The Hatchet. AU has not, so far, announced any layoffs.

This situation is not ideal for anyone. The pandemic has changed the course of many of our lives and the University budget is not immune to this devastating impact. Especially with a 10 percent tuition reduction, the University budget inevitably experiences strain. It would seem that the University has taken a bad situation, and done its best to minimize harm. We commend the administration for actively listening to faculty in regard to this furlough, making the much more flexible change to non-consecutive days. These decisions require discussion between all affected parties, and we hope that the administration will continue to listen to such bodies as the Faculty Senate as further issues arise. The situation is minimizing harm to those faculty members making less than $40,000 and to the student body with this decision.

Faculty are in a difficult position this semester, and the furlough will hopefully not be devastating to them. As much as students are suffering between online classes, living at home or losing income due to lack of student campus employment, our professors are also stuck in these uncomfortable situations. Faculty now have to teach online, many for the first time, and are often teaching from home where their family responsibilities may have increased. For professors with children, they may be teaching students for an hour and 15 minutes and then spending the day essentially homeschooling their child, if they attend a school that has moved online. These are the realities of all of our lives now, and it is worth acknowledging that professors are also struggling.

What may be a more concerning effect of this financial decision is the University not matching retirement contributions for the rest of the year. These contributions are part of how faculty and staff make long-term financial decisions, and this is a real loss. For professors who had carefully planned their retirement, the change likely throws them off course, just as so many students have been because of online classes or canceled study abroad. Even as it is likely a necessary one, this lack of University contribution is an example of how the financial damages caused by the pandemic will come to fruition even in years to come.

The student body has luckily come to little harm due to this budget loss. A tuition reduction and the removal or reduction of several semester fees have made student bills from the University less hefty. There have been no reductions to financial aid, which comprises a significant portion of the University budget, and could have been utilized to make up for the shortfall. Instead, it seems that the weight of this budget loss is not being shoved upon students, which ensures that our student body is able to continue managing the high costs of our education.

It is, however, worth mentioning that, as a collective University body, we have heard little about other portions of staff. The University dining staff has been furloughed since March, and little has since been said about what may happen to them. The COVID-19 pandemic has produced devastating outcomes from health and economic standpoints, and it is disproportionately harming Black and brown communities in the United States. It is no surprise that even on our micro-level of the University that those Black and brown members of staff primarily comprise our campus dining staff, and that they are most devastated.

This does not have to be an inevitable failure of communication about members of the AU community that also matter to us as students. As the federal government continues to refuse to support those out of work due to the global crisis, it unfortunately comes to employers like AU to consider how these vital community members can be supported.

The University is in an honestly terrible situation. How to pay faculty and staff, not reduce financial aid and meet student demands for lowered costs makes budgeting a serious problem. It is encouraging to see the University listening to faculty and avoiding causing harm to students. The immediate future of the spring semester, and even further ahead, is incredibly unclear. The reality is that this economic situation is going to be with us for a long time. We can only hope that similar agreements can be reached with all members of the staff, especially those in dining services, to minimize harm as much as possible. 

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