UMass, unions reach deal to avoid layoffs

  • A possibly abandoned bike, with two flat tires, is locked to a rack across from the closed Berkshire Dining Commons, right, in the Southwest Residential Area of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Aug. 27. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2020

AMHERST — Two University of Massachusetts unions reached an agreement with the university that will implement furloughs and eliminate some temporary positions, but avoid the hundreds of layoffs that the unions allege the university had previously threatened.

Last week, the UMass Professional Staff Union (PSU) and University Staff Association (USA) filed a grievance against the university, alleging that administrators threatened PSU with 300 layoffs and USA with 150 layoffs if the unions did not agree to the university’s then-most recent proposal.

On Monday night, the university “withdrew its threatened layoffs,” according to PSU leaders, and administrators and the unions signed an agreement that guarantees no layoffs before Jan. 31, 2021. As part of the agreement, the unions are withdrawing their grievances.

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewksi last week declined to comment on whether the university had threatened members with layoffs.

In a letter to PSU members, co-chairs Risa Silverman and Brad Turner said that the agreement includes “painful concessions,” but they “firmly believe that this deal provided the most protection we could provide for these members facing our current set of threats.”

Under the agreement, all PSU and USA members who are below 25% grant funded or on work visas will take two five-day furloughs between Sept. 21 and Dec. 31, and 76 PSU members will be placed on long-term furloughs with 30-days’ notice. The university had previously proposed 300 members take long-term furloughs, according to PSU.

Those placed on long-term furlough will retain health insurance and other benefits, according to PSU, and continue to accrue their contractual leave benefits. The long-term furloughs will not exceed 12 months.

Blaguszewski said Tuesday that “the university is pleased to have reached an agreement with our staff labor unions to help address the very challenging issues that UMass is facing.

“The employees who will be placed on indefinite furlough and those who are transitioning to part-time are our valued colleagues, and we deeply regret that the damaging budget impact of the pandemic has resulted in this action,” he added.

“Even with these actions, we remain committed to continuing to work with our labor partners to find mutually agreeable solutions to the challenges ahead, as we face continued uncertainties in planning for the spring semester.”

The agreement will also establish two joint labor-management committees to implement measures such as alterative work opportunities, training, voluntary cost-saving measures and other steps to mitigate future layoffs and furloughs while helping those currently affected.

For those who have 20-plus years of service or are on long-term furlough, the university will also enact a voluntary separation program that offers one week’s pay for each year of service for up to $30,000. Those with documented medical conditions who have been denied flexible work accommodations may also pursue the voluntary separation program regardless of years of service.

PSU members are professional staff and classified supervisors, and USA members are clerical, technical and administrative employees. Both unions are affiliated with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the National Education Association.

Turner said the union is “glad that the chancellor at UMass Amherst chose to do the right thing and withdraw those layoff notices,” but he said the university should draw more from its reserves “to avoid hard-working members of the university having to take these incredibly painful cuts.”

“They’re unnecessary, and this is a choice that Marty Meehan and the board of trustees are making to put money over people,” Turner said. In a statement to members, PSU criticized the UMass system for expressing an “austerity narrative.”

Blaguszewski said that Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy “has noted that the university operates under a very tight budget each year, and it does not have significant unallocated reserves.”

Measures such as staff reductions were necessary for the university’s long-term financial health, he added.

“Our reserves currently meet the university’s obligations for a five-month period, considered barely adequate for a healthy balance sheet,” Blaguszewski said. “Further, (Subbaswamy said it was) unclear when our revenues will return to normal levels, so depleting reserves to avoid short-term pain may imperil longer-term stability.”

USA President Leslie Marsland said in a statement said that the university “heard loud and clear from workers and those who support us that nobody was going to tolerate attempts to unjustly put people out of work and cut their access to health insurance in the midst of a pandemic,” which she attributed to outreach by union members and support from legislators and community groups.

Marsland also cautioned, “the cuts that the university pursued are still a threat and if ultimately implemented would be devastating.”

PSU and UMass will return to the bargaining table in December “to discuss the situation,” according to the union.