Pomona College non-faculty staff furloughed until 2021

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

A Pomona College plan to temporarily furlough 264 non-faculty staff has raised concerns among a group of its educators that the institution’s pandemic-related cost cutting move is unnecessarily impacting its most vulnerable employees.

The furloughs, 154 of them full and 110 partial, are in response to a Pomona College fiscal year budget gap in excess of $37 million, or 21 percent of its overall unrestricted budget of $177.5 million.

The move impacts more than 100 dining hall workers and 22 physical education department employees, and several other non-faculty positions, according to Victor Silverman, a 27-year professor of history at Pomona.

“The duration and magnitude of this pandemic crisis has now forced a step the College had sought to avoid,” said Pomona College President Gabrielle Starr.

The furloughs are effective Oct. 1 and are scheduled to last until December 31, at which time the school will reevaluate the plan.

Pomona will pay all of the affected employees’ health insurance premiums through December 31. A FAQ related to the announcement advised them to apply for full or partial unemployment benefits and for California’s newly implemented $4.5 billion Lost Wages Assistance Program.

A letter from the faculty group to Ms. Starr and Pomona’s Board of Trustees had 92 signatories (from a pool of 186 faculty) as of Wednesday. It asks the college to reverse course and dip into its vast endowment—reported to be in excess of $2.3 billion—to cover the salaries of the furloughed employees through the pandemic.

“Pomona is one of the richest colleges in the country,” Mr. Silverman said. “It has massive financial resources, and it can use those in a way to shield people who work for it from the vagaries of the pandemic.”

The college’s Faculty Executive Committee held meetings with Pomona College administration last Friday and this Wednesday in an effort to convince the institution to reverse course or delay making the move so that they might help find an alternate solution to the budget shortfall. Those meetings were unsuccessful in that regard, Mr. Silverman said.

“The endowment is in no way a rainy-day fund stashed away for emergencies,” Ms. Starr said. “It is a continual source drawn on year after year, in what must be a steady and sustainable way to maintain our lasting commitments to students.”

The endowment funds more than half of Pomona College’s operating budget. It’s been the source of paychecks for its staff and faculty since the pandemic hit last March, as well as increased financial support to students, continued employee benefits such as health coverage, and has supported faculty efforts to convert the school’s curriculum to online instruction, Ms. Starr said.

“While most institutions rely most heavily on tuition each year for most of their annual budgets, Pomona’s endowment, carefully stewarded over decades, has allowed the College to make enduring commitments to recruiting students from all socioeconomic backgrounds and providing students with excellent financial aid,” Ms. Starr said. “This is what makes our financial aid possible and allows Pomona to provide such an excellent academic experience.”

Pomona College’s total 2020-2021 fiscal year budget of $230.5 million was approved in May. Of those funds, $177.5 million is unrestricted and $53 million is restricted. Last fiscal year’s budget was $229.3 million, with $176.7 million unrestricted and $52.6 million restricted. 

According to Mr. Silverman, Pomona draws on somewhere between four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half percent of its endowment each year. The faculty group hopes to convince the college to use .2 percent of the fund to cover the cost of paying the furloughed workers.

“I think the college has the resources to do it, and the administration and the board of trustees need to be thinking about the lives of the people that are being affected by this unnecessary decision,” Mr. Silverman said. “Many of these are people who have worked at the college for decades. They’ve been through a lot. They deserve to benefit from the tremendous resources that Pomona College has.”

The perceived unnecessary injustice of cutting loose 264 staff—most of whom are among the lowest paid employees at the college—has not been the sole motivating factor for Mr. Silverman and his like-minded colleagues.

“We were informed by the administration, but we weren’t consulted,” Mr. Silverman said. “And I think that’s one of the things that’s driving quite a few faculty in this. It wasn’t a decision in which we were able to bring our expertise and our understanding [to bear]. We have a lot of highly skilled creative people on the faculty who could have figured out other ways forward for the college.”

Barring a future reversal by Pomona’s Board of Trustees, the furloughs will go forward as planned.

“We recognize the hardships and challenges of this ongoing pandemic and the resulting temporary furloughs,” Ms. Starr said. “Our goal is to minimize loss of income and bring affected employees back to work as soon as possible. We look forward to having every member of our community—students, faculty and staff—back on campus as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Other Claremont Colleges, such as Keck Graduate Institute, have avoided furloughs. Claremont Graduate University also does not expect significant operational cuts in the coming fiscal year.

Others weren’t so fortunate.

Scripps College made $18.2 million in cuts over the summer. The school suspended hiring for most new and vacant positions; established a moratorium on salary increases; made voluntary salary reductions for senior staff, including a 20 percent salary reduction for Scripps President Lara Tiedens and five percent reductions for all vice presidents.

Scripps administrators also increased its endowment spending rate to 6.6 percent; decreased divisional operating budgets by $6.3 million; reduced The Claremont Colleges Services expenditures by $1.2 million; eliminated retirement contributions for all employees for 10 months (September through June); and reduced the hours of 59 remote fall-impacted employees from August 30 through December 20.

Scripps will also continue to provide benefits, including medical, dental, vision, back-up care, life insurance, EAP, tuition remission, and sick and vacation accrual for its affected staff.

Scripps College indicates it will also help its affected staff navigate and applying for benefits through the Cal Work Sharing program, minimizing delays in processing their applications, ensuring they are receiving benefits, and if necessary, intervening to assist with payment processing, increase work hours, or use other methods to sustain their income.


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