Rutgers Unions Endorse Furloughs to Bolster Finances, Save Jobs

The university administration and its unions are working on proposals to contend with pandemic-related financial woes
Credit: Tomwsulcer via Creative Commons CC0-1.0
College Avenue campus, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

The Rutgers administration and its unions have different ideas on how to ease the pandemic’s financial effects on the university — an anticipated $200 million budget shortfall for the 2019-2020 fiscal year ending in June, and possibly an even worse prognosis for 2020-2021.

The Coalition of Rutgers Unions, about 20 bargaining units representing some 20,000 workers, has developed a self-described “progressive people-centered approach.” Some planks are familiar to those who follow union-Rutgers dynamics — spend less on athletics, reduce a top-heavy administration and use unrestricted reserves to make up for deficits.

But then there’s something different, at least for New Jersey’s state university. The unions also propose a “work-share” program that, if adopted quickly, representatives say, could save the university about $100 million and support employees’ pocketbooks at the same time.

Under traditional furloughs, sidelined employees remain on personnel rolls, with the possibility of returning to their jobs, as opposed to the full separation of a layoff that requires rehiring for employees to return.

Under the work-share proposal, employees would work part of the week and be furloughed for the rest; the number of days worked would depend on their salary. For days they don’t work, the employees could collect state unemployment and the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit provided by the CARES Act.

“It’s a plan we discussed with the administration, but they’ve been very slow to respond,” said Todd Wolfson, president of the Rutgers American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers union which represents faculty members and graduate students.

Wolfson, also a journalism and media studies professor, advocates quick action because the more time that passes before implementation, the less money Rutgers would save, as unemployment benefits laid out under the federal pandemic relief law are scheduled to end on July 30. For every day without a work-share program, he estimates, Rutgers misses out on reducing costs by $2 million.

Wolfson also says that, without the unions’ approach, about 1,000 workers could be laid off.

“It’s the same community that typically bears the brunt of layoffs — low-wage earners, people of color and women,” he said, in this case, facilities and dining service employees.

The union says the potential for job loss was made clear in an April email from the administration directing deans and department heads to reduce adjunct faculty up to 25% to help close budget gaps.

Administration sees a historic challenge

In an April message to the university community, Rutgers president Robert Barchi described several cost-saving plans to address what he called “perhaps the greatest academic and operational challenge in its [Rutgers’] history.” Among them are four-month salary cuts for senior-level university administrators and high-level athletics department staffers, continuation of a hiring freeze, and a ban on travel and new construction projects. The use of university reserve funds, as well as layoffs and further wage freezes, are also being considered, he wrote.

As for the union’s proposal, on May 21, the university provided the following statement: “We have been actively engaged in productive discussions with several of our unions on a furlough program that will save more than 1,000 jobs and allow the university to continue to meet its mission. We are hopeful that those discussions will conclude quickly. The university fully supports furlough programs as are currently allowed by law and welcomes any improvements embraced by the governor and the legislature. We are hopeful, too, that an agreement on a furlough program with our other unions can be achieved, that jobs can be preserved, and that the university’s mission can continue to be met.”

In 2011, New Jersey passed a work-share law for furloughed workers that the union says makes its proposal possible.

And this month, legislation sponsored by Sens. Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) and Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) was introduced so furloughed New Jerseyans could reap the full federal unemployment benefits provided through the CARES Act, in ways similar to the Rutgers union proposal.