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Union steamed at layoffs

We’re not happy, and we want to make it known.”

That was Zoe Birkle talking, president of the Oregon Public Employees Union Viking local 89. The union covers classified employees at Portland State. Birkle and the union membership are angered at what they consider the abrupt and unexpected way employees were given layoff notices beginning Friday, May 17.

The layoffs came as the response of various departments to an administration order to cut budgets for next school year. Although departments had been advised earlier to have a budget cutting plan, the actual implementation, Birkle said, “came like a bolt from the blue.”

When Birkle talked about the union making its displeasure known, she was speaking of a rally planned by the union for the Park Blocks, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, June 5. The rally will include a bake sale. Birkle said the union’s hardship fund is depleted and the sale is the opening salvo in building a war chest.

“We’re going to build our hardship fund up by having something once a month,” she said. “We want to get money put away for the time we’re probably going to need it.”

George Pernsteiner, vice president for finance and administration, said that the implementation of the layoff plan did come somewhat abruptly.

“We did not consult with the union in advance and I regret that,” he said.

As of last Friday, the final layoff notice had been delivered. Those getting the pink slip totaled 11 classified (union) employees and seven unclassified, some of which are managerial employees, for a total of 18.

None of those laid off were required to walk out the door. They were given about five weeks, until June 30, to face termination.

Birkle, a painter in facilities, took office on May 1, to find herself quickly in the midst of the wrangle. “They were supposed to let us know. We feel like it was a slap in the face,” she said.

Facilities took the heaviest hit of any department. It lost two painters, two groundskeepers, Dave Johnson of the sign and graphics shop and Chris Hertel, shop supervisor for the carpenter and paint shop. Hertel has worked at Portland State 26 years. Birkle said two open positions, one systems employee and one electrician, remained unfilled. Birkle will remain the lone painter. Facilities elected not to lay off any mechanical systems employees or electricians. They are considered essential to safe operation of the university.

The athletic department had been under orders to cut its budget 8 percent. Brent Wilder, associate director external, said the department took action to meet that requirement. It eliminated one position, declined to fill one vacant position and eliminated one sport, men’s golf. The total budgetary saving, he said, was $220,000.

John Fowler, director of the Campus Public Safety Office, said he had to lay off Michael Bruce, sergeant of the midnight shift.

“The position is eliminated,” he said. “It won’t be back.”

Some staff reorganizations not tied to the budget problem will also conserve money. One position was eliminated in the Saturday Academy and the Human Resources office was reconfigured. Of the 18 job losses tallied by the union, Pernsteiner said 15 were related to the lack of resources.

No academics or library staff were laid off in this round of terminations. The union is fearful that June may bring another round of layoffs. Deborah Murdock, assistant to the president for Government Relations, said, “Nobody knows what’s going to happen in June.” She implied much may depend on the upcoming special session of the state legislature. The lawmakers may seek a fix for the financial shortfall being suffered by higher education.

Pernsteiner explained that the May layoffs came as the latest and most regretted action in a continuing series of plans to live within the continuing money shortage.

“We reduced budget on a one-time basis last fall,” he said. “We were able with those one-time reductions to weather the year so far.” But, he foresaw problems next year, because the university used up the savings it made this year.

The university began budget planning in early spring and put out budget instructions in early March. “We said based on what the special sessions (of the legislature) were doing, we would have less resources for next year.” At that time it was predicted there would have to be reductions in everything except instruction, research and library. He told directors and deans to expect about a 5 percent reduction. He told them to have their plans ready to submit by May 8. The first layoff notice came less than two weeks later.

Pernsteiner explained why some areas remained protected. “We are growing very rapidly in terms of student enrollment and growing very rapidly in terms of funded research,” he said. “In order to do those things, we have to protect the core of the faculty.”

He said enrollment will be up for summer term and is predicted to rise by 6.6 percent fall term. If it rises more than that, PSU will receive more tuition money. If the increase is smaller, the university will find itself with less tuition income. This could further complicate the money problem.

PSU introduced a three-prong plan to meet the anticipated money shortage. First it would reduce already depleted reserves. Second, it would introduce some minor fee increases. Third, there would be reductions in operations, principally in support areas. There remains the possibility of a modest tuition increase.

Birkle said rumors began floating two weeks ago that layoffs were imminent and the notices began falling in utilities on Thursday, May 23. The utilities painters are now down to one, who is Birkle.

“There just won’t be any painting,” she said.

She said the utilities layoff plan was made by the former utilities director, Brian Chase. His last day at Portland State was May 8. Chase left to take a similar job at Colorado State University.

Those laid off may not necessarily be out of a job. They may have an opportunity to bump other employees under a complex system supervised by Karen Yelle, classified employment manager in Human Resources. Yelle was organizing the process this week. Bumping follows a complex chart which follows an established decision tree. It begins with bumping into a vacancy in the same class, to a vacancy in a different class but same salary range, to bump in same class, to bump in any class where the bumper previously held regular status in the same salary range. It continues on through two more steps, ending in either layoff or placement. Anyone bumped then goes through the same process if so wishing.

Portland State also participates in a state program called Career Makers. It provides outsourcing training for laid off employees who want to undertake it, without charge.

As the news of layoffs spread throughout the campus last week, Murdock called an information meeting for Friday in the president’s office. She wanted to brief the teaching faculty, the union, students, alumni and the chairman of the faculty budget committee about the upcoming special session of the legislature. She explained the potentiality of a $1 billion shortfall in the state budget and the possible consequences.

In a speech before the Eugene Rotary Club Tuesday, Governor John Kitzhaber proposed raising income taxes for three years. Republican leaders reportedly showed little enthusiasm for the idea.