March 5, 2010

University Holds Forum To Address Staff Concerns Over Budget Cuts

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Reimagining Cornell aims to “do less with less” in the long run. This process will leave an indelible wake of layoffs and staff cuts, an issue addressed in yesterday’s Managing Change Brown Bag Lunch.

The lunch was held in an informal setting in Sage Hall, where staff gathered looking for appeasement if layoff stress and clues of the University’s future budgetary actions. Hosted by Mary Opperman, vice president for human resources, and Paul Streeter, associate vice president for planning and budget and head of the new Initiatives Coordination Office, the discussion was a junction of encouraging words and bellwethers of future changes.

“Part of the reason it’s hard to stop things is because we’re proud of everything we do,” Opperman said. “Either we already stopped the stuff that’s low value or we weren’t doing low value stuff in the first place.”

Opperman and Streeter were well received by the staff present, who appreciated the openness of the administrative duo.

“It was a really nice opportunity to have an open, transparent conversation about change that has happened and change that will happen in the future,” said Katie Stockwell, who is a member of the accounting service center in the College of Veterinary and Medicinal Sciences. “We’ve been going through a lot of change, and we’re always looking for better tools to handle that change.”

Opperman and Streeter did not delve deeply into specific cuts being made; rather, they emphasized that the process was aimed for long-term growth and said that the Reimagining mission could turn out to be good for morale as well as campus efficiency.

“We have a great president, we have a fantastic provost, we’re going to get through this,” Opperman said. “I think we can get through this and feel a little bit better about ourselves. We could actually walk away from a difficult time with a little more love with our neighbors. I have a great vantage point in that I get to see all the parts of Cornell, and every part of Cornell works hard. There’s that same loyalty and drive and commitment everywhere.”

Staff members present noted that although the cuts had certainly affected their respective offices, there was nothing too debilitating. Many were focused on getting past whatever hits their fields may have taken, and looking ahead to continued improvement.

“We’ve gotten to the point that we’re embracing the change, and setting up our staff members for success in the future,” Stockwell said.

One point brought up was the issue of staff versus faculty lay-offs. Many staff present expressed the following concern: because professors and researchers are more associated with the quality of a University’s academic standing, the staffers of those professors and scholar departments would be getting the brunt of cuts. Opperman said that staff are as integral to the University as the faculty.

“We have immediate concern for staff hiring if our student enrollment suffers,” Opperman said. “I watch faculty hiring as much as for staff positions. We always have to remember that every one of us is here to support the student experience.”

Transparency and open dialogues, according to Paul Streeter, are the aspects that will make Reimagining Cornell a success.

“We’re going through a tough time on campus right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty amongst staff,” Streeter said. “We’ve had a real big commitment to being transparent. We’re trying to make sure we’re on the ball for the long-term. We’re really trying to protect the academic mission.”

urged no travel “unless absolutely necessary,” and said that her car insurance would therefore not have covered her in the event of an accident.

The University, however, stressed that their inclement weather policy — and their worker policies in general — were “very generous,” and that they took great lengths to ensure workers’ safety, according to Vice President of Human Resources Mary Opperman.

Opperman said that it wasn’t particularly onerous or unreasonable to ask workers to use vacation time for a day off, and that the workers were in no way harassed or bullied.

She added that the University had made great lengths to ensure “that employees with long commutes had their schedules worked out long beforehand.” The University also postponed the start of the day till 9:30 a.m. to allow workers more time to arrive, Opperman said.

As for the workers’ safety concerns, Opperman said that Human Resources has held meetings with the purpose of showing “that [for us] their safety comes first.”

United Auto Workers Local 2300, the union of Cornell’s service employees, said that they hadn’t been receiving open complaints from the workers, but sympathized with their frustrations.

“It’s upsetting,” said Local 2300’s Administrative Assistant Carl Feuer, “but there’s nothing we can do about it … until 2012,” when the workers’ current contract expires.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t start building our case now,” Feuer added.

Feuer said that the workers “recognize [that it is a] very difficult time for the University.”

Some staff members, however, expressed discontent over the incident.

“The University didn’t close [the school] because then we would have had to get paid,” speculated another custodian on North Campus.

Opperman emphasized that it was essential that the school remain open.

“We can’t really close the University when we have thousands of people here,” she said. “It’s a difficult balance … we did the best we could.”

Others saw the event as evidence of inequitable treatment of the University’s staff.

“The teachers don’t lose anything [for not coming in],” said custodian Kathy Parlin.

Not all employees had a bone to pick with the University. One cafeteria worker took a less sympathetic view of the workers’ complaints: “You get a lot of whine asses at Cornell,” said the staffer, who requested anonymity. “They got sick and vacation days, so they use them. That’s what they’re there for.”

Yet the prevailing sentiment of the snowstorm was that the workers had been slighted.

“It’s bad [policy] … and it’s not right,” said C.C. Smiler, a cafeteria worker and union representative at Appel Commons. “[One] should be allowed to stay at home and not be penalized if they otherwise would have been there.”

His co-worker at Appel Eric Hunter agreed, saying he had waited for hours for a bus that never came. “The half of the staff that lives far away should not be penalized,” Hunter said.

Despite the discontent, the policy is unlikely to change soon. A cafeteria worker on North Campus, requesting anonymity, said that this policy has existed in snowy Ithaca throughout her 20 year tenure here.

For the workers located close enough to make it in, the day was a nice surprise — they were rewarded 1.5 times their usual pay for making it in. The trouble is, as Feuer suggested, it becomes more difficult for workers to come in if their wages can’t keep up with rising Ithaca property rates.

Original Author: Brendan Doyle