Among broad financial freezes to respond to COVID-19, top University officials will see a voluntarily pay cut.

Olivia Weinberg / Sun Assistant News Editor

Among broad financial freezes to respond to COVID-19, top University officials will see a voluntarily pay cut.

April 15, 2020

Personal and Professional Stalls: Staff React to University’s Financial Freeze

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When the University announced a series of steps to manage the financial impact of the pandemic, Cornell employees had mixed reactions to the cost-cutting measures of a hiring and salary freeze.

Adam Howell, communications specialist for the Cornell Local Roads Program and chair of the Employee Assembly, believed these were decisions that University leadership did not make lightly.

“Everyone is going to have a different reaction,” Howell said, “but I do believe they are within the best interest of the staff community.”

He explained that, given the University’s current financial strains, a temporary hiring and salary freeze is needed to save jobs in the long-run.

Unlike Howell, another employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, expressed disappointment in the hiring freeze. Though he recognized that the hiring freeze is probably needed on a holistic university scale, he is still frustrated with the impacts the freeze will have on his personal and professional life.

“[The hiring freeze] has stalled the hiring process for a key position in my department and sets us back for important development initiatives. On a personal note, it has stalled my desire to advance my career; I had recently applied to a position in another organization,” he wrote in an email to The Sun.

Regarding the salary freeze, he was heartened to see that senior administrators have voluntarily agreed to salary reductions for the next six months. However, he feels that Cornell needs to do more.

“I would like to see the university re-evaluate the salary increases of staff and researchers making below a certain annual compensation rate; maybe $50,000?” he wrote.

“These are the employees that can use all the help they can get financially and giving an annual increase to those that can use it would be the right thing to do from the administration,” the employee added.

Howell admitted that the new policies can bring anxiety and uncertainty. He hopes the Employee Assembly can be a bridge of communication in getting accurate information from administration to staff and informing leadership on employees’ questions and concerns.

The Employee Assembly has so far hosted three COVID-19 virtual staff forums. During the April 1 forum, which was attended by 1,800 to 2,000 people over Zoom, members of University leadership responded to attendees’ questions on the salary and hiring freeze and other newly implemented cost-cutting measures.

When asked why faculty promotions are excluded from the salary freeze, Mary Opperman, vice president and chief human resources officer, explained that “there is a step agreement for most [faculty] promotions, from assistant, to tenured, from associate, to full” and that “changes in pay and promotion for staff… are much more episodic and less structural.”

Opperman also spoke about the likelihood of job cuts and losses — a concern for many employees. She confessed that she doesn’t have a definite answer to this question. No one knows how long the pandemic will last and what long-term financial impacts the virus will have on the University.

“But I’ve made a promise to be as transparent as I can be to you. And that includes telling you what we know today, even if it isn’t the answer you are hoping for,” Opperman continued.

While there are currently no plans for another virtual forum, Howell said the Employee Assembly is committed to supporting staff in other capacities.  The E.A. is looking to see how they can help essential workers who are worried about contracting the virus on the job.

“We are meeting and working hard to see what we can do,” Howell said. “I like to think that one of our best roles is to be a conduit of information upwards [to the administration].”