Friday, March 06, 2009


Pre-Emptive Layoffs

An alert reader sent me the link to this article from the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Apparently, the University of Massachusetts is sending out layoff notices to 60 faculty now, just in case it needs to actually go through with layoffs this Fall. If the stimulus package delivers enough, it will call some fraction of the 60 back.

On the face of it, this is insanity. To say “you're fired,” only to follow it weeks later with “never mind,” pretty much guarantees a serious morale issue. The message it sends to the affected employee is “you are on the absolute bottom of the totem pole, and your job is hanging by a thread.” There's a tremendous difference between “we may need to do some layoffs” and “you, personally, will be laid off unless we get more money.” It inflicts terrible stress on people for whom it may ultimately prove to have been unnecessary. My fearless prediction: if most of these folks do come back, I'd expect most of them to leave voluntarily over the next few years.

But the article suggests that this may not just be managerial tone-deafness. The key quote:

The university is contractually obligated to notify these lecturers, said UMass spokesman Edward F. Blaguszewski. The contract of the first group required longer notification.

Anyone who has managed in a unionized setting knows what this means.

Contracts usually contain notification deadlines for retrenchments or layoffs. Failure to comply with those deadlines is grievable, and may ultimately result in forced payouts. In other words, if the university decides in May or June that it doesn't want someone back in September, it may be too late. The penalty for late notification can be drastic, but there's no penalty for an early 'false positive.' So the fiscally rational thing to do, perversely enough, is to send out notices to as many as your worst-case scenario suggests you'd need to, and then to call back the ones you can.

The irony, of course, is that this is a side effect of a contract provision usually favored by the union. A workers' protection clause winds up generating unnecessary pink slips.

At my campus, we're facing a variation on this. It isn't yet clear how the federal stimulus money will affect next year's budget, but we're coming up on some hard contractual deadlines. Our state money has been cut severely, but some fraction of that cut may – or may not – be restored for July. People on campus are nervous and jumpy, and looking for answers, but “I don't know” is the truth. Budgets are always based on assumptions – if we assume two percent enrollment growth, then we have x dollars – but the range of plausible assumptions this year is unusually wide. We keep waiting for the dust to settle, hoping to gain some clarity, but the contractual deadlines don't give us much wiggle room.

It would be easy to bash the University of Massachusetts for this, and there may be other valid reasons to do that. But this is a (perversely) rational response to an insane situation. For everybody's sake, I hope we can get some clarity soon. Until then, I expect to see more stories like this.

This is incredibly common at the K-12 level.

Mom just got her pink slip for the year. She's gotten one every year for the past 5, but this is, by far, the earliest.

At that level it's "just how you do business" which doesn't make it any better.
And your solution would be ... ? There is no rational plan for dealing with layoffs that doesn't have some situation that makes it look foolish, but that doesn't justify NOT planning. Suppose UMass had the right to issue layoff notices in early August. How would that work for everyone who managed to survive?
Of course, it also shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that lecturers are (one could, as you write "fearlessly" assume) non-tenured, non-terminal degree'd faculty who would be the first to go, even before adjuncts, since they carry full benefits.

Hey, all you adjuncts that have been complaining--betcha never thought you would be glad you didn't have that full time position, eh?
Side note- to surface the three gratuitous hidden assumptions about the "stimulus" [sic] plan.

A more reasonable assumption about the "stimulus package" would be

" . . . not sure how long the SP will prolong the downturn . . . "


" . . . not sure how much the SP will help with the recovery . . . "

If you wish your colleagues to retain their jobs, it might be better to hope that the stimulus package desn't "work*."

*"Work" defined as "what it is designed to do" *not* "What we hope it will do."
The upside of this for those who got the letter is that they can collect unemployment benefits.

When I began doing adjunct work in the 1970s in New York, we could collect unemployment benefits over the summer and even during the winter intersession.

Then the law was changed. A letter of "reappointment" prevented adjuncts from collecting, although the letter clearly stated that rehiring would be contingent on enrollment and other factors.

Our unions are trying to change this law and have told adjuncts to try to challenge it (some administrative decision-makers on appeals have been sympathetic).

So perhaps in this case they are allowing people to collect unemployment benefits starting when the spring term ends? This might be done for the benefit of the lecturers.
I didn't see any hidden assumptions, gratuitous or otherwise, in Dean Dad's article, either as regards his CC or the U of Mass.

Maybe YACP saw one, but I didn't see any assumption that the continued employment of those persons was predicated on an improvement in tax revenues by the summer due to some miraculous change in the economy.

The only question concerned whether and how much money the college or university will get directly from the stimulus package itself, and whether and how much any such funds will offset the equally unknown future cuts that may come from the legislature.
Heh, yacp, remember: we aren't libertarians, so we don't live in the alternate universe in which the Great Depression didn't happen, but instead some other historical event which was not finally ended by massive fiscal stimulus happened.

If you're going to engage with people outside Universe-2, the libertarian utopia, you're going to have to remember that the world functions differently here. In particular, Say's Law isn't.
CCPhysicist wrote:

but I didn't see any assumption that the continued employment of those persons was predicated on an improvement in tax revenues by the summer due to some miraculous change in the economy.

Actually, it was explicitly stated (whether by DD or the article is less clear):

...just in case it needs to actually go through with layoffs this Fall. If the stimulus package delivers enough, it will call some fraction of the 60 back.
Wow, every time I think I've found out how stupid economic righties can be...

What DD said was that the stimulus bill could contain direct relief, not a change in tax revenues going to that school.

I included a three-syllable word there, so we can get out the puppets if we need to.
Wow, Punditus, your assumption maker is working full time as well.

I will accept that what Dean Dad wrote MAY have meant simply direct funding. But "delivers enough" is vague.

The intent of the stimulus package is to stimulate. The reason that the state funded schools are having to cut their budgets is because of the drying up of the tax revenues due to the poor performance of the economy.

Thus, it is not unreasonable (but I admit, could be incorrect) to assume that what was meant was that the stimulus package would deliver enough STIMULUS to allow the states to restore funding.

I hope I was sufficiently contrite as to evade any further vitriol from you, but I suspect not. You seem to enjoy being, well, mean.
And to head of any further puditritous, I acknowledge that DD wrote
It isn't yet clear how the federal stimulus money will affect next year's budget, but we're coming up on some hard contractual deadlines.

But again, the stimulus money could affect next year's budget through the intended stimulation of the economy, and thus the resultant increase in revenues that would allow the states to restore funding.

Assumptions are wonderful things.

Let's acknowledge that we each made them and move on.

And yes, I realize acknowledge is a 3 syllable word. Use your puppets as necessary. (hey, that IS fun! I could get used to being mean!)
I've been on early RIF lists three times, and three times (knock on wood) when July 1 arrived, I still had a job. It is demoralizing, but, for me, at least, that manifested itself as anger.

Understanding about contracts, the economy, state funding levels, trustees slow to approve fees or tuition increases, inflation--none of that rational stuff weighed a thing when tossed on the scales against my fear and anxiety.

I was angry each time, and part of the anger was anger at myself for being so irrational, because I was well aware throughout that there was no entity or individual to blame for my predicament, but my relationship with my school never recovered. I'm still angry twenty years later.

Every time I hear administrators soft-soaping faculty with some jive they picked up at the latest management techniques conference, I flash on hearing for the first time that I was on the RIF list and feel the adrenaline rip....
There are obviously advantages to having a closed mind:

- You can ignore facts you don't like!
- You never have to recognize your own assumptions (as such)!
- You can employ all kinds of high-school-debate-team logical fallacies, like ad hominem, appeal to authority, straw men, and more!
- You don't actually have to take the time and trouble to actually *think* about anything- you already have all the answers!
- Name calling can be fun!

and bestest of all

- None of that pesky introspection stuff!

[as long as you can ignore the big neon "TRANSFERENCE" sign crackling over your head consantly, Life Is Good!]
Sherman makes the excellent point that it is much better for these people to know in December or February that they are likely to be laid off next fall than to find out in August. The ironic thing is that I would guess the ones LEAST likely to be laid off are the 31 lecturers who have been there the longest and got notice in December. The ones MOST likely to be laid off are the ones who were not even among the 60 required to get notice 6 months before they are let go. Like TAs and adjuncts. They gave notice to 91 people but only plan to lay off 50 faculty and 30 lecturers - along with 150 TAs.

On an earlier point:
I think it is perfectly clear that the university is only talking about money from the stimulus package that would come directly to the university, albeit through state government. But then I have seen how our college budget is developed and modified. We make no economic assumptions other than those related to enrollment or those based on second-guessing overly optimistic ones made by the legislature.

In my experience, the gratuitous assumptions have been (and are still) being made by the governor and legislature, as they project increasing tax revenues in the not so distant future so they can avoid cutting programs like education until the last minute. (These revenues might come from the Obama plan or the Bush one, if not from that pie in the sky as was the case a year or so ago in our state.) Several of DD's recent posts have resulted from that sort of state-level budgeting process.

Our college has benefited a lot from a president who spotted a few blatant examples of this process in our state and correctly discounted the future value of those parts of our most recent appropriation.
Out here in California, the due date for a layoff notice is the Ides of March. This is part of the Ed Code and has nothing to do with whether a school district is unionized or not.

Districts must plan according to a worst-case scenario; consequently, thousands of pink slips are issued unnecessarily. Dean Dad is correct in pointing out that this causes morale problems and lots of unnecessary stress. It's expensive, too, because everyone who receives a March 15 notice is entitled to a hearing and a lawyer.

But what's the alternative? Can anyone out there suggest a better solution?

1. Make the notifications (below a pessimistic "cut line")
2. Work like hell to get senior folks to take early retirement (with incentives)
3. Delay actual layoffs until the last possible moment

DoD has the best track record (well, they have the most experience) in this regard.

Encourage those below the cut line to find other opportunities; offer senior folks incentives to leave; offer below-cut-line members incentives to leave as well.

Side Effect: while incredibly fair, the organization is left with the very people who have the best opportunities in the market. C'est la vie.
I love when libertarians, who have the same solution to every policy problem under all circumstances, accuse others of having a closed mind.

As has been noted so many times, the trick to having an open mind is not to let one's brain fall out. Pretending that the Great Depression was something it wasn't because examining it honestly is impossible without challenging one's basic assumptions about how the economy works is not precisely open-minded.
For wayupnorth: I'm intrigued that you have stayed with the institution as long as you have after getting your RIF notices. I'd think it's an important piece of information to know that in a crisis, your institution thinks you're expendable.

My reaction to such a notice would be to try to figure out why I got voted off the island. If it was something I could change, like a missing certification, then I'd move to correct it before the next downturn. If it was a more general lack of confidence in me and my abilities, I'd be planning to find my next job (or my next career!) even if the RIF notice was rescinded later. I'd feel the same way you do: I'm not going to sit there and listen to motivational talk from managers who don't respect me or my work. Time to find an organization for which I'm a better fit. Are you in an area where employers are thin on the ground?

I'm not sure how much the above comments apply to this year, which is an extreme outlier...I could easily see an administrator agonizing over putting someone's name on one of these notices. Now is also not the best time to be plotting a career move. I think it might be valuable in a less extreme crisis, though.
"Side Effect: while incredibly fair, the organization is left withOUT the very people who have the best opportunities in the market. C'est la vie."

E.g. those with market value cash in on it; those who can't find opportunities elsewhere remain.
dictyranger--the RIFs had nothing to do with my personal merits or demerits, so I had no business taking them personally. I was junior in the department, the new lad on the block and no one else was touchable until I was gone--union rules.

Why didn't I leave? My discipline is pretty much a byword for absurdity--why else do you think I was so terrified? I had a family and no reasonable prospect of ever finding a decent job--you've heard of "adjuncts," no doubt!

As I say, I had no business taking it personally, but I did and do, however unfair and unreasonable that is.
wayupnorth -- ain't that the human condition? We take personally things that ain't, and we can't things that is.
Up where I am, there is a surplus list for those at risk of losing their job. Most recent hires are most at risk, but someone in a subject with a surplus of teachers may end up on the block too. You get notified in the spring, in time to make plans if you need to. If there is an opening at another school that you can fill you are transfered there. If, by the summer, there is no opening for you then the school board has a system of bumping. Those with more seniority can bump those with less, assuming that they can teach the same timetable. Politics doesn't enter into it, as it's a strictly by-the-number game: last hired first fired.

If you are surplus you are kept on for a limited time as a supply teacher (at regular salary), which costs the school board a bit extra but not a lot, as they would need to pay a supply teacher anyway), and you have first crack at any openings that come up in this period.

Granted it isn't fun being on the surplus list (my first ten years were spent there, thanks to the last neocon government). Still, it's better to know and be able to make plans that have a ghastly surprise in September.

The union fought long and hard for this system, which for all its faults is a lot better than what used to happen: the school board gave everyone a pink slip in June, and rehired them in September after seeing what enrollment would be.
"(my first ten years were spent there, thanks to the last neocon government)"

Well, since *you* brought it up, what specific policies or laws do you think a "non-neocon government" could have implemented that would have saved you the emotional distress of being placed on a potential furlough list?

Lifetime employment guarantee for all college graduates?

Or what?

*You* brought it up . . .

[has this blog always been a mirror site for alt.looney.left.hallucinations?]
YACP - No you still read usenet groups? Whoa - now that IS old school!
Hey, I was on ARPANet usign ftp to carry threads through nodes over the 'net *before* Al Gore even invented it . . . 300 baud acoustic couplers and all that.

Writing replies and commentary in text editors like vi . . . yeah, by candlelight, on the back of a coal shovel with a piece of chalk . . .
Chortle. Back in those days, I could edit faster in vi than I can today in word.
Al Gore invented the internet! It's funny cuz he didn't say it!


Once again, you are correct, sir.

What Al Gore DID say, was:

"I took the initiative in creating the internet."

Certainly a different word choice and a different meaning.

Funny, still, I think there are a few advocates out there that remember working on it long before 1988.
Even that isn't fair -- the full quote is: During my service in the United States Congress,[1] I took the initiative in creating the internet.[2] I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives[3] that have proven important to this country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.

[1] establishes that this has to do with his Congressional duties, so this is mainly funding and jawboning. [2] is the claim. [3] makes clear that he considered this part of an overall commitment to supporting good legislation.

In short, Al Gore says he championed funding and supportive legislation early on for the internet, something which is most certainly the case. He clearly does not say that he had any technical hand in its development.
I don't have quite that much geek cred, although my husband and I did run a FidoNet BBS back in the day. Users connecting at 300 baud over old copper: it was almost real-time typing. :)
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