Protestors

These protestors stood on the sidewalk of East State Street in Athens on Saturday morning last week, calling for Ohio University to rescind the layoffs announced earlier this month for 140 OU workers in the local 1699 AFSCME union chapter. Photo by Conor Morris.

Since May 1, Ohio University has announced layoffs, or the elimination of positions, for at least 340 people, along with the retirement of at least 88 employees (74 of them faculty members) as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has worsened the university’s already serious budget troubles.

That’s a large group of employees in a university that, according to 2019-2020 data, had 3,889 total full-time and 1,012 part-time employees across its campuses (among full-time workers, 1,235 were faculty, 1,587 administrators and 1,067 classified staff).

That picture becomes even more stark upon recognizing that OU is the biggest employer in the county (and among the biggest in southeast Ohio). According to self-reported June 2016 data from the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, OU employed 4,169 people (part- and full-time) at that time, followed by OhioHealth with 682, Athens County with 567, Hocking College with 550, Athens City Schools with 417 and Rocky Brands with 350.

The economics of those layoffs at OU were at the forefront of participants’ minds during a protest Saturday morning on East State Street hosted by OU’s 1699 chapter of the AFSCME union, and during a smaller protest at the Richland Avenue roundabout the morning before. These actions came after OU announced layoffs for 140 of those union workers on May 1, a group that consisted of custodians, cooks and maintenance staff, among others. About 32 additional positions in that group of workers that were vacant will remain vacant, and 17 AFSCME workers also took advantage of an early retirement incentive program offered earlier this year, The NEWS previously reported.

Betty X, one of the protesters Saturday, cited the ripple effects of those layoffs.

“This is affecting all of us; it’s affecting the county… Athens County and neighboring counties as well,” she said. “If we don’t have income, the county businesses don’t have income.”

The protesters Saturday lined the sidewalks of part of East State Street, near the Athens Community Center, with signs calling for the jobs to be reinstated and decrying OU administration’s decisions on the university’s budget.

President Duane Nellis explained in a letter sent last Friday that layoffs for 53 instructional faculty and the abolishment of 149 administrative positions come as the university has struggled with declining enrollment over the last few years, as well as the new financial challenges presented by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

"This moment in our university’s history weighs heavily on my mind and in my heart," Nellis wrote in his letter. "I deeply recognize and empathize with the feelings of concern and angst that have been reverberating through our community and university as we continue to understand how our financial picture would frame the very difficult decisions we have made and that lay ahead."

News had been trickling out over the last two weeks about contract terminations for faculty members after the initial 140 layoffs of the AFSCME workers. In accordance with the faculty handbook, the 53 faculty members terminated will finish this coming year of teaching before their contracts are terminated.

Meanwhile, Nellis said that OU has notified 149 administrators that their positions are being "abolished.” However, as a part of a "university-wide realignment projects in Communications and Marketing and University Advancement, as well as departmental reorganizations," the university expects to rehire 55 administrators into "new positions,” Nellis wrote in his letter. He called that a “net reduction” of 94 administrative positions.

OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood explained how that process will proceed in a follow-up email on Monday.

“Administrators whose positions were impacted as part of departmental reorganizations will work in their current roles for the next 14 days, and have been invited to apply for open positions during that time,” she wrote. “The larger majority of positions are posted for internal candidates only, and we expect to fill them with individuals who were impacted by actions on Friday.”

Asked which academic departments and administrative offices were most affected by the layoffs, Leatherwood said she doesn’t have that information readily available. The NEWS has filed a public records request for that information. Leatherwood also said she wasn’t yet able to share how much money might be saved by the recently announced layoffs

“We will not be able to share a comprehensive financial impact until new administrative positions are filled and salaries determined,” Leatherwood said. “We will be able to share more details on financial impact at the close of the fiscal year.”

IN OTHER NEWS, NELLIS announced furloughs (temporary leave) for positions beginning on July 1 for all administrative, faculty and classified non-bargaining employees.

The amount of leave for each employee will be based on his or her salary; for example, somebody making more than $200,000 would be furloughed for 18 days (a wage reduction of about 6.9 percent), compared to 10 days for somebody making between $38,000 and $64,999 (a wage reduction of about 3.8 percent). Those furloughs will result in $13 million in savings.

Nellis reiterated that he and Provost Elizabeth Sayrs will be taking a voluntary 15 percent pay cut.

In addition, Nellis asked several senior administrators to take voluntary 10 percent salary cuts as well.

"I have asked members of President’s Council and Deans Council to take salary reductions of 10 percent or more for FY21," he said. "I can share that many vice presidents and deans, as well as our athletic director have already committed to these reductions, and our head football coach and head men’s basketball coach will take voluntary salary reductions of 10 percent."

Adding that he wants to be “upfront,” Nellis acknowledged that these will not be OU’s “final steps” as it moves toward a new fiscal year starting in July.

“Some colleges and divisions are continuing to work through reorganization plans that required additional time and study to ensure the right decisions are made for the future of the University,” he said.

OU has launched a budget update website, located at https://www.ohio.edu/budget, which has several tabs with information titled “what we know,” “what we don’t know yet,” and “our current response.” People can also email questions to budgetquestions@ohio.edu.

DURING THE PROTEST on Saturday, Johnny Johnson, regional director of AFSCME Ohio Council 8, asked people to continue to send letters to OU’s Board of Trustees calling for the reinstatement of the fired union workers.

“You guys don’t deserve this; you’re essential employees and Ohio University needs you guys,” he declared.

Johnson also said that he believes OU “reneged on their part” after the Board of Trustees voted last week not to approve a preliminary agreement on a labor contract that had been reached by the 1699 union and the university before the pandemic.

JULIE WHITE, a professor of political science and core faculty member in OU’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality studies department, said during the protest that she and other faculty members and workers at the university are angered by the layoffs. The university leadership has not made it clear how the layoff decisions were reached or what the “criteria was” for deciding who gets laid off, she said.

“We have people who have worked for the university for decades, some of who teach 600 students a year,” she said. “It’s really hard to justify laying those people off or non-renewing them as a budgetary decision. I worry about curricular integrity and the kinds of programs that are not going to be in existence as a consequence of these cuts. We’re out here with AFSCME because we realize that losing any jobs at the university is going to have a really dramatic impact on this community and the surrounding communities. AFSCME leadership is doing a great job on pushing back on the administration. I think some of these cuts were done without input or foresight. And I hope that the university will use this coming year to revisit the kind of decision-making process and non-renewals that they’ve committed to at this point.”

We’ll have more from several faculty members who received non-renewal notices in a companion story.

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