A Way To Make COVID-19 College Furloughs More Fair

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Yves here. In a bit of synchronicity, we wrote about the dire state of university and college finances, and today, The Conversation has a story on how the “progressive” pay cuts the University of California system implemented after the financial crisis as a badly-needed “shared pain” model. Better paid workers are taking bigger pay cuts than those at the bottom. However, I suspect that readers would contend that the very highly remunerated ones, particularly football coaches and top administrators, should have received even greater haircuts. And now, the funding gap is much greater, meaning substantial headcount cuts will take place at many institutions.

By Charlie Kurth, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Western Michigan University. Originally published at The Conversation

When the state of California cut funding to the University of California system by US$619.3 million, or 19%, in the wake of the 2008-09 recession, the leaders of the UC system tried to spread the resulting economic pain to its employees in a fair way. More specifically, employees with bigger salaries took on larger cuts – 10% of their salaries at the top end – while those with smaller salaries faced smaller hits – 4% at the bottom end. The cuts also came with workload reductions, which were essentially furloughs.

In presenting the progressive furlough plan, the UC president at the time explained that it was all about shared sacrifice. This approach, along with hiring freezes and other measures, helped the UC system weather the crisis.

Today, in face of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the nation may be confronting financial challenges even greater than those the University of California faced a decade ago. By some estimates, up to 20% of schools may go out of business by the time the pandemic runs its course. Many more are expected to be badly crippled financially.

While the success of the UC’s progressive furlough strategy offers a model for how colleges and universities can shore up their finances, with a few exceptions, it’s not the route that many schools appear to be taking, based on a review of news articles reporting on the steps schools are taking.

Rather, the option being pursued by wealthy private schools like Washington University in St. Louis, less affluent public schools like Western Michigan University – where I work – and religiously affiliated institutions like Marquette Universityinvolves distinguishing two types of employees – the essential and the nonessential.

Needed vs. Not Needed

This two-pronged strategy starts by defining essential employees as those whose work needs to be done now. Essential employees include, for instance, those who are actively teaching classes as well as high-level administrators, and campus police to protect school property. This group continues with their daily duties – though, often doing so remotely – and they keep receiving full pay and benefits.

The nonessential group, which makes up a significant share of these schools’ workforces, isn’t so lucky.

With campuses shuttered and classes moved online, these employees – from the department assistants who help students with their schedules, to the custodians and groundskeepers who keep the campus clean – face reduced workloads with corresponding reductions in pay.

While this strategy may help schools weather the financial crisis, the UC system’s progressive furlough model shows that there’s another way – one that aligns with these institutions’ expressed commitments to social justice for their employees and their communities.

As a moral philosopher who examines the dynamics around making difficult decisions, I believe that progressive furloughs are a morally better choice.

Spreading the Economic Pain

Most obviously, when a school’s workforce is divided into essential and nonessential, the hardship and stress of reduced pay only hits some employees. In some cases, these pay cuts may be manageable. But in many others, they will be severe. In fact, at some schools, 30% of employees now find themselves on unpaid leave through the summer.

To make up for their lost wages, nonessential employees will need to draw on their vacation time and sick day allocations. In some cases, they may still be able to file for unemployment. To their credit, some schools have bolstered these leave balances with special COVID-19 leave time. But this additional leave time will only go so far.

Further, once this leave time has been exhausted, these employees are placed on unpaid leave, losing not just their paycheck, but sometimes also their regular health care insurance benefits. School leaders are sensitive to these risks and have been soliciting contributions for newly created relief funds for employees affected by the pandemic. But voluntary efforts like these can only do so much.

The Case for Help

Of course, some may wonder why schools should pay employees when there’s no work for them to do. But this thought assumes that these are ordinary times and that these institutions are ordinary employers.

However, the toll from the pandemic is unprecedented. And most colleges and universities – with their commitment to social justice – have accepted a leadership role in protecting the livelihood and well-being of their employees and contractors.

The University of California system again provides an example of how colleges and universities can keep their commitment. The progressive furlough plan at the University of California system provided exemptions to some of the lowest earners: graduate students (like me at the time) and other student workers.

Challenges Remain

Though I see progressive furloughs as a more equitable way for higher education to address its financial challenges, saying that does not mean that doing it will be easy, or that furloughs alone will be enough.

It could be challenging to ensure that all employees have a say in how the furloughs are structured. Some groups will be able to do this through their unions, but accommodations will be needed for those who lack union representation.

While bringing in these employee representatives could complicate negotiations, all participants in these discussions would do well to ask themselves this ethical question: Would I rather accept a modest, temporary reduction in my pay, or see my “nonessential” colleague placed on unpaid leave?

There may also be a larger lesson here. Colleges and universities are not alone in facing financial challenges brought on by the pandemic. While progressively structured furloughs may not work for every part of the economy, the ideal they embody – the principle of shared sacrifice – surely applies beyond the walls of academia.

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  1. Felix_47

    $578,916 is the base pay for Janet Napolitano, hardly an academic……a lawyer and democratic political animal, a social engineer…..who is head of the University of California. Considering the retirement and benefits and tenure one would think the salaries should be a closer match the parents of the students. I note she is getting rid of the SAT at UC in a state where half the kids get A averages in high school secondary to grade inflation so that the UCs become more egalitarian and inclusive. The problem is that this is the only objective test we have in this environment. This will negatively impact Asian students who are the high performers in the California system and advantage people who are better politically connected. If egalitarianism is good for the students what is so hard about egalitarianism for the salaries of the administrators?

    1. Larry Y

      SAT is hardly objective – selects for a particular social class, especially those that go for prep classes and tutors. Many of those “Asians” have worse verbal scores. Math is as useless (elite STEM programs look at SAT-II/Subject/Achievement tests and AP).

      Better connected types mostly don’t go to public schools anyway.

      What the UC schools are doing much better than other elite universities, compared to others, is how they welcome junior/community college transfers.

  2. Bsoder

    For and profit, I became a Complex Systems Philosopher and as required was exposed to moral philosophy which is to say many in philosophy don’t consider morality to be the proper subject of study of philosophy because as defined by science there are no facts. I introduce here David Hume’s conclusion that what I said is so. God, long preamble. I don’t see that your reasoning is sound. The virtue you base your decisions on are arbitrary and inconsistent. And as Clive keeps pointing out you can’t force values on top of people, one they don’t like it, two they bite back. No one is going to agree on what set of morals should be used.

    But, I’m not here to find fault, that simply was a reaction, the issue is what to do. In my experience with higher education there is way too much deadwood and a lack of a sense of proportions. As in labs are good, $200 million stadiums no matter how funded are bad. By there they are. I suppose pre-Covid-19, one didn’t have to choose. I propose if the outcome is graduating students that know something then the concept of ‘value’ must be placed on things/processes that directly contribute to that, rate them and add it up. The cuts: Professional sport leagues pretending they are collegiate, are the first to go. Small scale athletic clubs are fine. Almost all provosts gone. Medical centers gone. Building builds to last a 1000 years gone. And maybe not everyone needs a degree so maybe less people should be going to traditional colleges. Thus less colleges. And you can’t a business model (why would a college have one in the first place?) where it cost $10,000 to $75,000 a year to attend. Campuses with 20,000 or more students break them up go local. In fact I’d base tuition on the amount of money one could make in semester at minimum wage. Like it used to be. & on & on

  3. anon in so cal

    Separately, Cal State (the state college system) will conduct fall 2020 classes online.

    1. DonCoyote

      Mostly online according to CNN. I suspect lab courses and other more hands-on classes as well as more graduate classes will be on campus.

      My daughter and son-in-law work at CS Fullerton and aren’t scheduled to go back to work on campus until end of June.

      1. anon in so cal

        “implementation of any element of face-to-face engagement on campus–be they labs, simulators, research, studio arts, or musical performance–will be guided by the following criteria:

        There will be very limited exceptions granted for face-to-face engagement.

        There must be a compelling academic reason for doing so, demonstrating that there is no alternative option to achieve the learning outcomes or degree requirements in that course.

        All requests for limited exceptions will be considered after broad consultation (like that described above), must have the concurrence of local public health and other regulatory officials, and must have the approval of the President and Chancellor’s Office.

        The availability of on-campus housing will be severely limited and require meeting rigorous thresholds for physical distancing.”

        –from my campus.

        Similar to the Chancellor’s statement:


  4. DonCoyote

    University of Arizona announced they are doing progressive furloughing for 2020-2021:

    The gory details

    Below $44.5K a year, nothing, then 5-20% cut in pay (and work) on up depending on salary.

    I suspect, as was on the original link, that it is easier to do with state schools.

      1. Arizona Slim

        Unions? That is funny!

        Says Slim, who worked on this campus for seven years. And I would have loved being part of a union.

  5. Alex Cox

    The author mentions campus police as essential workers. Why is this so?

    In Europe a separate police force for academia is unheard of. In Boulder CO the existence of two police forces in a relatively small city creates needless duplication and suggests that there is one law for the hoi poloi and another for the students (which is true).

    Why not get rid of the campus cops and let the regular police deal with criminal activity? Campuses are not hotbeds of crime, and it would be educational for undergrads to learn to deal with real cops, rather than ‘friendlies.’

    1. Larry Y

      Because if they’re state institutions, the campus falls under state jurisdiction. Federalism is strong… In the New York/New Jersey state area, the police you may run across could be city police, county sheriff, state troopers, Port Authority, NJ Transit, and of course – campus police.

      Also, the surrounding cities/towns don’t want to or can’t deal with large young, seasonal, and transient population. Everything from the tens of thousands (some are over a hundred thousand) that flood in on college football game days to campuses located in inner cities (like Rutgers in Newark, NJ and Camden, NJ).

      1. periol

        “Also, the surrounding cities/towns don’t want to or can’t deal with large young, seasonal, and transient population. Everything from the tens of thousands (some are over a hundred thousand) that flood in on college football game days to campuses located in inner cities (like Rutgers in Newark, NJ and Camden, NJ).”

        As always, these towns want the economic benefits of the relationship without having to pay their share of the costs. America sure is great if you’re wealthy and connected.

        1. Larry Y

          In the case of Newark and Camden – the economic benefit never really came to those communities.

          Newark now has parts with luxury apartments and Whole Foods, but more than twenty years ago, it was known for carjacking. Multiple state campus were located there, including the state medical school. Not to mention, the global HQ for Prudential. People drove in, and drove out.

          1. periol

            Uh, I lived in Jersey City 17 years ago, and Newark definitely received economic benefits from having Rutgers in town and gameday crowds. Just because it didn’t benefit the entire community equally doesn’t mean there weren’t significant benefits.

            I can’t speak to Camden from personal anecdote, but I imagine the situation is much the same.

            We are talking about New Jersey. They do corruption like the rest of us do breathing.

    2. JBird4049

      Larry Y and periol both have good comments, but there is also the increasing existence of the police state. School resource or safety officers (police) did not exist decades ago in public schools or even in higher education.

      The local police did the job on the still rare times that they might be needed. Now it’s fear everything and put an armed police officer everywhere even in grade school. It is like the TSA and their scanning, probing, searching, and the changing nonsensical rules to ostensibly keep us safe; a society wide MIC Complex for profit under the guise of safety.

      1. periol

        This is a good point, and further to your idea I suspect an unspoken reason behind the growth of campus police forces is that colleges know better than to trust their students to the wiles and woes of regular law enforcement. It’s not just local communities scared of the partying students, but it’s also a result of colleges, students, and parents that are afraid of what could happen if our militarized police started wrecking the lives of college students.

        Certainly at the well-known college I attended in the 90s, everyone knew you’d rather end up with a talking-to from the campus popo than sitting in the back of a town police car. The first got swept under the rug, the second usually needed a lawyer and showed up in the paper. I didn’t like the police then. Now I’m terrified of them.

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