The University of Wisconsin Board of Regents has approved a policy change that could lead to furloughs for 39,000 employees at the state's 13 universities and branch campuses.
The measure comes after the state's colleges projected losses of nearly $170 million after students were told to leave campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The policy amendment authorizes UW System President Ray Cross and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to create furlough policies for their respective employees. Furloughs are essentially mandatory, unpaid time off.
In a summary provided by UW System, the move is described as the result of "increased fiscal challenges as a result of the COVID-19."
"The furlough policies will provide options in addition to the other workforce reduction and cost saving measures, to address these financial challenges in a way that minimizes layoffs and maximizes the UW System's ability to continue to perform its critical educational and outreach mission," said the summary of the board’s action. "The furlough process is not a substitute for layoff, non-renewal, or termination processes as outlined in the Wisconsin Administrative code, system-wide policies, and institutional policies."
Before regents passed the policy change unanimously, Cross thanked campus administrators, faculty and staff for quickly adapting to the new realities of having to deliver education remotely. He said campuses are facing significant financial challenges, "the likes of which most of us have never seen."
"So, to protect our future and to enable us to continue to fulfill our educational mission we must act now to address what we hope is the temporary crisis before us," Cross said.
The policy proposal comes four days after the UW System projected revenue losses of nearly $170 million. The unprecedented figure includes lost housing and dining services revenue, which is being refunded to students after they were told to stay away from campus in March to avoid outbreaks of COVID-19 on campuses. All classes have since been moved online or to what UW campuses have described as "alternative delivery methods."
Projected revenue losses at UW-Madison make up the lion's share of the overall UW System deficit picture. In late March, Blank told a faculty committee that the campus stood to lose an estimated $100 million alone even if social distancing restrictions were lifted by June.
A document provided to the regents by UW System Administration after they voted to approve the furlough policy outlines guidance for all campuses except UW-Madison, which will outline its own approach.
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A statement sent to WPR by UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas said the need for limited operations and social distancing has caused every state agency and private businesses to face tough decisions.
"In the coming days, we will examine options available to us based on the Board’s actions that will help us manage this crisis in a fiscally responsible way while supporting our employees as best we can," wrote Lucas. "We expect to announce further HR guidance by the end of April."
For UW employees at the state's other 12 universities and branch campuses, it sets a minimum furlough of one day and a maximum consecutive furlough of up to three months. Chancellors can choose to mandate furloughs consecutively or intermittently.
During the Thursday meeting, Regent Tracy Klein asked Regent President Drew Petersen whether further changes to personnel would be needed after the potential furloughs.
Petersen responded by saying the current focus is on "short-term furlough activity to stabilize campuses."
"As we look at a longer period of time, I think there will be considerable focus on what modernization of our university systems will look like," said Petersen. "It’s too soon to make those determinations, but this really goes to the short-term furlough aspects of the operating budgets of the campuses."
The last time UW System employees and other public workers faced furloughs was in 2009, in the midst of the Great Recession. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle announced at the time that non-emergency workers would have to go off the state's payroll for 16 days.
The UW System is anticipating getting some relief from the $2 trillion federal coronavirus aid package signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27. Robert Cramer, System vice president for administration, estimated UW campuses would get around $47 million.
Editor's note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.