Academic Library Workers See Furloughs, Reduced Hours as Schools Anticipate Budget Cuts

As they anticipate hits from lowered enrollment and decreased endowments, as well as declines in state funding for public universities and community colleges, and potential rollbacks of money that has already been authorized, academic institutions have begun hiring freezes and reductions, including furloughs, layoffs, and reduced hours for non-tenured faculty and staff. Many campus libraries are seeing reductions in workforce that threaten to affect their ability to serve students, faculty, and researchers.

long shot of academic reading room with sign across image reading Over the past few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities across the country have had to contend with a great degree of uncertainty: will they be reopening to in-person students in the fall, and how will that decision—not to mention having had to finish up last spring’s semester remotely—affect revenue? As they anticipate hits from lowered enrollment and decreased endowments, as well as declines in state funding for public universities and community colleges, and potential rollbacks of money that has already been authorized, academic institutions have begun hiring freezes and reductions, including furloughs, layoffs, and reduced hours for non-tenured faculty and staff. Many campus libraries are seeing reductions in workforce that threaten to affect their ability to serve students, faculty, and researchers.

While most furloughed public library employees cease working altogether—with the understanding that they will probably be recalled to their roles in the future—academic furloughs often involve cutting hours, days, or weeks for a specified period of time.

Part of the problem lies in the lack of a way to predict what student enrollment will look like in the fall, even for colleges planning to open their campuses. Traditional predictive enrollment models aren’t usable at this point, as COVID-19 numbers have begun spiking in states that had seen low infection rates earlier in the year. While the CARES federal stimulus package included $14 billion in aid for higher education, according to the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard, that stimulus will replace only about 2 percent of academic institutions’ revenue.

Some schools have announced that they would not implement any reductions in their workforce, such as the University of Kentucky—which predicts an estimated $70 million revenue shortfall but is combating this through a hiring freeze, changes to retirement fund contributions, and delaying an expansion of its family leave policy. The University of Arkansas also plans to offset shortfalls through a hiring freeze and halting merit raises. But many institutions reducing library staff when they’re most needed to help ease the transition to remote or hybrid services.

 

DIFFICULT DECISIONS

“Higher Education is not used to this level of uncertainty,” said Roger C. Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s Libraries, Scholarly Communication, and Museums Program. “Nobody really knows what to expect.” Most academic libraries received their budgets last winter or spring for the academic year 2020–21, and in many cases those have already been cut or pulled back, or libraries have been forbidden to spend against them.

Many policy decisions about cutbacks are being made for the entire institution according to particular categories, Schonfeld told LJ, which often include cutting positions that are contingent on in-person services. These might include janitorial or dining staff but could also extend to library workers whose responsibilities involve working at the circulation desk, shelving books, or processing materials. In Ithaka’s conversations with library directors during the spring and early summer, Schonfeld said, he saw many directors reassigning library workers’ duties so that they wouldn’t be eligible for such sweeping furloughs.

Within the library, decisions must be made about where decreases will come from—Schonfeld has been talking to “librarians and library leaders who want to take as much of any cut as possible in the materials budget to protect their staff, to protect services.”

When the materials budget does get cut, libraries also need to contend with how that will be distributed; there has been a major interruption of print acquisitions in the past four months, and a corresponding uptick in ebook and electronic journal purchases. One question that remains to be resolved, Schonfeld pointed out, is what will happen to big deals and commercial science bundles.

 

UNIONS AND UNCERTAINTY

According to “Leading a Library Today: How Library Directors Are Approaching the Challenges of the Current Moment,” a recent report from Ithaka S+R, “In at least some cases, librarians with faculty status are protected from furloughs and harder to lay off, so cutbacks will necessarily be concentrated among other library employees.”

However, even faculty are not immune to reductions. Anticipating both a decline in fall enrollment and state funding, the University of Oregon (UO) chose to take the pre-emptive measure of cutting FTE (full-time equivalency) for non–tenure track career faculty up for promotion to 0.55 (a normal workload is equivalent to 1.0 FTE). In addition, contract terms were shortened to one year from the usual two or three.

Staff were notified of potential salary cuts in mid-April, two weeks before contract renewals. During the negotiations that followed, UO stated that if United Academics (UA), the university’s faculty union, did not agree to the proposed cuts, FTE of the 211 faculty members slated for a reduction would be cut to 0.1; ultimately they agreed to .55 FTE and the ability to retain their health insurance eligibility, which union members approved on May 7.

Of UO’s 42 librarians, 14 were up for contract renewal this year; another five were up for promotion, forcing them to choose between giving up their promotion and keeping their hours or signing a contract that cut their previous salary by half. Two assistant librarians pulled their promotion applications to keep their salaries.

The decision was made by the provost's office without any input from deans or various unit heads, said Music and Dance Librarian Ann Shaffer, who is a UA representative and steward. “It uses these non–tenure track faculty as a bargaining chip. It isn't strategically planned in terms of finding ways to meet operational needs.”

All three of UO’s science librarians, both librarians who oversee electronic resources, and subject liaisons to 20 departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, UO’s biggest school, will be affected—“Across the board, at this time when the library is working harder than ever,” Shaffer told LJ. “The whole summer, when the library could be preparing for what fall is going to look like, our work capacity is potentially going to be reduced,” she said.

“We've all just worked harder than ever to help support our faculty and students to find electronic versions of the texts they're using, to help them find open access resources to replace more costly textbooks that they would have relied on, to help increase our database subscriptions and our journal access.”

The university tentatively plans to reopen for the fall term using a hybrid plan that incorporates in-person learning for classes with fewer than 50 people and online courses to be taught remotely or in a hybrid environment—which will require “librarians full-steam supporting all the faculty as they’re juggling yet another new teaching situation,” said Shaffer.

The university says that the financial situation is uncertain, and it could potentially raise FTEs once it is more apparent what enrollment and state funding will look like. UO has pushed deadlines for students to commit to enrollment to September 1 to provide some flexibility for families coping with financial uncertainty, as well as registration for returning students, which leaves faculty hanging. “They’ve dangled this as ‘It’ll be OK at the end,’” said Digital Scholarship Librarian Kate Thornhill, who is also a UA steward. “But there’s no guarantee.”

In addition, at the end of May the university announced a voluntary work reduction program, which would permit 12-month faculty to take a reduction of their FTE for the summer and collect unemployment for the reduced hours. “It's kind of strange that just after involuntarily reducing 211 people's contracts, they're now asking people to voluntarily take a work reduction for the summer,” said Shaffer “We're getting some very mixed messaging.” Under the current agreement, librarians are at 1.0 FTE for the summer but will be reduced in the fall; supplementary COVID-19 unemployment benefits run out on July 25.

The union has been holding town halls with faculty, and keeping all UO units informed of any developments. Thornhill and Shaffer built a website, UOLibrariansUnited.com, to provide updates, and have been collecting testimonials from faculty and students about the value of UO’s librarians and library services, pointing to the impact of what would be lost without a full team. They have also reached out to regional library partners such as the Orbis Cascade Alliance, the Oregon Library Association, ACRL [Association of College and Research Libraries] Oregon, and Northwest Archivists, to write letters of support to the provost and president; the website offers a template to send support letters as well.

“When COVID-19 first hit UO, the messaging that was coming from the university's president was that librarians and the libraries are essential,” noted Thornhill. “This institutional behavior contradicts that.”

Institutions everywhere are having to make difficult decisions, acknowledged Shaffer. “But it's always important to ask, at the unit level, the people who are affected for ideas about how to handle that. We understand where the impacts are, we understand what things could be reduced temporarily in order to focus on what the priorities are,” she added. “The faculty had ideas, the staff had ideas, all of really effective ways that costs could be saved, that a smaller budget could be met, and the plan that the university went with doesn't seem to align with any of those.”

 

HITTING THOSE WHO NEED THE PAYCHECK HARDEST

As with many of the pandemic’s other developments both within and outside the library world, academic library job cuts fall heavily across racial and economic lines.

“Given that it is often part-time, non-professional staff that experience layoffs and furloughs first, and that the demographics skew toward support staff being the most diverse subset of our field, it seems certain that a disproportionate number of BIPOC library workers will be affected by these staffing reductions, both in public and academic libraries,” noted Callan Bignoli, the organizer of libraryworkers.net and an academic librarian in the Boston area.

Dustin Fife, the Director of Library Services at a public liberal arts university in the western United States, told LJ that furloughs at the school’s library—for two, four, or eight weeks, depending on the position—began as early as June 1. This is being framed by leadership as a one-time cost saving measure, he said, to address the fact that the state has repealed half its funding for colleges and universities. The school will continue to pay employees benefits while they’re furloughed.

Three of his eight team members were furloughed for four weeks. Decisions on whom to furlough, he said, were based on salary—targeting the lowest-paid workers so that their unemployment compensation would be close to their original pay. However, he noted, it could take much of those four weeks for them to be able to claim their benefits, leading to short term cash flow problems for those least likely to have savings to cover them, on top of the upcoming loss of the temporary federal increase in unemployment. “This isn't a favor,” he said. “Sometimes it's being portrayed that way, that this isn't a big deal because of unemployment. I think the psychological weight of being furloughed isn't being taken into account.”

In the meantime, his library has been left short-handed. In June, he told LJ that the furloughs were “basically taking us back to a skeleton crew. It will be harder to respond to all the emails, all the requests. Our archivist won't be available, so our archive will be completely quiet. It will completely cut off parts of our online services.”

Going forward into the fall semester, additional rolling furloughs—such as decreasing hours by two days per month—may be implemented. These are most likely to hit the people who need their paychecks the most, he noted, and the situation is not unique to his university. Higher education as a whole is “unwilling to make the policy decisions to get things right,” he told LJ. “We carom from one intervention to another, always looking for some magic sauce when we know the magic sauce is to raise taxes and fund the public good.”

Schonfeld noted that library leaders looking to make statements and take actions that demonstrate their commitment to inclusivity should start by looking at which of their workers would be hit hardest by furloughs or potential layoffs. “Even when one's intent is not to discriminate, the effect of one's actions can be discriminatory in effect if there are underlying inequities,” he pointed out. “It doesn't feel like a footnote. At this moment, it’s something that people should be mindful of, and try to think hard about, as we figure out what the future's going to look like.”

 

FIVE DAYS OF WORK IN FOUR

Furloughs aren’t unique to schools that depend on state funding—and the lowest-paid employees are still hit hardest at well-funded schools. A librarian at a small private East Coast college, who asked that her name not be used, was given a furlough of one day a week at the beginning of June, after working remotely full-time since her campus closed in March. Although her unit had expressed the desire to be furloughed for a week or a month at a time, the college chose to furlough all 35 members of library staff for one, two, or two and a half hours per week.

The understanding was that this would allow them to take advantage of supplementary CARES Act unemployment compensation. However, LJ’s source said, reduced hours have instead forced her to compress her regular workload—compounded by a library-wide hiring freeze—into four days, often working 12 hours a day. Employees are not allowed to check email, or do anything work-oriented, on their furlough day, she noted, "But that doesn't feel like it's worker-centric. It feels like ‘Don't endanger the program.’”

Furloughs are slated to last six months, although what will actually happen depends largely on fall enrollment. Hopefully, “if it exceeds expectations, they're going to say, ‘Give us back our librarians,’” she told LJ, adding, “I hope they say, ‘Give us back our department assistants,’ because they're on two and a half day furloughs.”

She is also concerned about student workers, and how to ensure the library will be able to keep them on come fall. “They really are such a powerful part of the academic librarian experience,” she said. “I know at least one of them doesn't seem like she's working for extra money. She needs every dime. And I worry about her.”

At the moment, her college plans to bring a percentage—maybe one-third—of students back to campus. The library will probably provide book paging services, with students only allowed onto the library’s first floor to request materials. But only a handful of staff live within walking or bicycling distance of the library, and she doesn’t know what the administration’s expectations are for people with compromised immune systems, asthma, or worries about commuting before a coronavirus vaccine is developed.

While “the money part certainly hurts,” she said, feeling “hurt and insulted” because her labor is undervalued was worse. But she loves her job, she added, and understands that the administration faced a range of hard choices given the expected loss of tuition and endowment.

“I just wish it were more equitable across the board, no one being seen as more valuable than anyone else other than essential employees,” she told LJ.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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