UMass staff, faculty rally for jobs, health

  • Emily Steelhammer, an employee with the Massachusetts Society of Professors, gets help from her daughter, Camila Mendez-Steelhammer, decorating her car with posters in preparation for a protest to demand a safe campus with no major budgets cuts in the next year on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Joe Levine and Louise Antony, both philosophy professors at UMass, decorate their car with posters in preparation for a protest to demand a safe campus with no major budgets cuts in the upcoming year on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jules Bannister, a member of the professional Staff Union at UMass, speaks to a gathering as part of a protest to demand a safe campus with no major budgets cuts in the upcoming year on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A bike and car caravan of protesters makes its way past the chancellor’s house at UMass Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2020 6:41:35 PM

AMHERST — The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, unusually quiet amid the COVID-19 pandemic, saw an uptick in activity Wednesday afternoon as over 100 staff, faculty and students held a car and bike caravan-style protest to demand no layoffs or other major cuts in the upcoming year.

Prior to the car and bike portion of the protest, which was organized by the UMass Unions United (UUU) coalition of workers, participants gathered in the parking lot near the Whitmore Administration Building, where several speakers criticized what they say is an austerity approach by the university in response to the public health and financial fallout of the pandemic.

“University staff are essential to supporting teaching, learning, and the day-to-day operations of UMass,” said Brad Turner, co-chairman of the UMass Professional Staff Union chapter. “Without our staff, the university does not work for students, faculty and highly paid administrators.”

The protest was held as part of a statewide protest directed at the UMass board of trustees and held in coordination with the AFL-CIO’s national day of action for racial and economic justice, with one speaker noting that UMass “must be an anti-racist campus to be a safe campus for all.”

Protesters also say that the university needs to take action to protect employees financially and keep the community healthy amid the pandemic.

“We need to make sure any decisions regarding the fall are putting people first,” said Colleen Kuusinen, one of the protesters.

It is “unrealistic to think we can contain (coronavirus) outbreaks if we bring students back to campus,” she said. “Rather than wait for it to happen, we want to be proactive.”

Kirsten Helmer, another protester, said she fears UMass will become a super-spreader if campus operations start up too early and wants a benefit and risk cost analysis from the university.

“There are so many important considerations that we haven’t really heard about,” Helmer said.

Following the gathering in the parking lot, where protesters wore face masks and stood spaced apart, participants drove or biked around campus and UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy’s residence. Many had decorated their cars with signs bearing messages such as “Protect all staff, students, and faculty,” “Higher ed unions united” and “Don’t make UMass a super-spreader.”

Furlough agreement

Last month, the 3,000 workers in the Professional Staff Union, the University Staff Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1776 agreed to take consecutive five-day furloughs staggered between May 31 and June 20. An additional 400 non-union administrative staff members were also affected by the furlough plan.

Staff agreed to these furloughs “because we love our jobs, and we love this great university,” Turner said at the protest, adding, “Today we call on Chancellor Subbaswamy to stand with us.”

The furloughs cover part of a $40 million net revenue loss in fiscal 2020 due to shutdown measures against the pandemic, according to UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.

No additional furloughs or layoffs have occurred since this announcement, Blaguszewski said Wednesday. When asked if further furloughs or layoffs are being considered at the moment, Blaguszewski said that “the budget outlook for FY 2021 remains unclear.”

“Currently, we are restricting nonessential spending to reduce costs,” he added.

In addition to the furlough plan, the unions also agreed to a plan that offers financial incentives to employees who resign or retire this summer.

Subbaswamy has taken a voluntary 12% pay cut from April 26, 2020, through June 30, 2021, according to an email obtained by the Gazette in May, and has asked other executive administrators to take a 10% pay cut during this period as well. Subbaswamy was paid a base of $487,079, along with $106,927 in other pay in 2019, according to state salary data.

The university also has implemented a staff hiring freeze and other cost-cutting measures in non-academic administrative areas, according to a UMass spokesman.

In that same email, which was sent to university officials in late April, Bill Brady, vice chancellor and chief human resources officer at UMass, warned that “with all of the uncertainty related to our operating status, enrollment, and state budget support, the challenges we face in FY21 will be even more serious.”

He added, “very difficult decisions will need to be made in the weeks and months ahead to address our finances and the impacts of our decisions will be felt across the organization.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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