SCHENECTADY -- Union College announced Tuesday it will furlough around 30 percent of its workforce – nearly 275 employees – effective April 18 as the campus remains closed for the remainder of the spring term in the COVID-19 shutdown.
The college plans to furlough staff who “literally cannot do their job” without students on campus, with the furloughs disproportionately affecting the college’s dining services and facilities departments.
Union College President David Harris in an interview Tuesday said he expected the furloughed staff to be reinstated after students returned to campus.
"It's about individuals whose duties you just can't perform if you have to be off campus, buildings are closed and students aren't here," he said, emphasizing the staff changes are "temporary furloughs" not layoffs, comparing it to "unpaid leave." “These are valued members of our community who have jobs [with Union]."
Harris said college officials weighed different options to address the financial challenges presented by lost revenues from room and board costs and the investment hit to the school’s endowment, including across-the-board paycuts. He said the enhanced unemployment benefits included in the federal CARES Act stimulus package passed by Congress last month would help support the furloughed staff over the coming months and that those benefits helped sway the decision to furlough staff.
In a video posted to the college’s website Tuesday, Harris said the college would continue to pay for the health care of the furloughed employees and committed to support furloughed staff who have difficulty enrolling in unemployment benefits.
"Thanks to the [federal stimulus] we can relieve some of the budget pressure on Union from the COVID-19 response and minimize the economic impact on our employees," Harris said in the online video.
Union faculty members will not be affected by the furloughs, but college officials also froze pay raises that were expected for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Harris said a group of certain employees were in line to receive a 2 percent raise, which will now stay flat. The college also planned to freeze new staff and faculty hires as well as direct vice presidents to "closely manage" operating budgets within their areas of oversight.
Harris said the furloughs were Union’s response to the financial difficulty that many college’s across the country are now dealing with after sending students home and foregoing months in room and board charges. Colleges are also grappling with enrollment concerns as high school students and their families face shifting personal situations as they look to make a decision about where to go to college in the fall.
"It's a multi-million-dollar challenge that is created by going online for spring," Harris said. “March was the month we all went online, April is the month we all come to term with doing so."
At Union, the net loss in room and board revenue was around $7 million, Harris said. He said the expected payroll savings from the furloughs will total around $1.5 million.
“This is the first step,” he said. “We may do other things down the road.”
It's not clear how long students will remain away from campus. The school has suspended in-person instruction for the spring term, but school officials have yet to cancel on-campus commencement ceremonies planned for June 14. Harris said the college's extended spring schedule gives it some more time to make a decision about graduation, but he acknowledged a large gathering was unlikey in the middle June.
"We are still holding out hope," he said of the June commencement. "I understand it's a faint hope."
But he sounded a hopeful note that the college would open campus to students in the fall, as school officials make preparations to host students even if an uptick in COVID infections happens in the fall as some health experts predict. He said colleges like Union now have more time to prepare for handling a potential second wave of infections while continuing to host students on campus. Harris also noted the importance of the on-campus interactions that play a critical role in students' college experiences.
"We are expecting to come back in the fall," he said. "None of us want to be online colleges and universities."