GRAND FORKS -- The global coronavirus pandemic has hit hard at the University of North Dakota and other universities across the United States. Now, in an effort to stabilize its budget, UND is adjusting hours for some employees.
Interim UND President Joshua Wynne on Friday, April 17, said the university has been dealing with a “significant decrement in revenue” in recent weeks, including the reality of having to provide refunds to students on housing and dining costs. The pandemic has halted flight operations, which has brought a significant decrease in revenue to the university. The university is bracing for a potential decrease in enrollment for the fall semester.
Those realities will translate to what Wynne has termed a “reduction in effort.”
A majority of nonfaculty staff will see a substantial reduction in hours in the coming weeks, Wynne said. In most cases, Wynne said staff may see their hours reduced to zero, but they will remain employed by the university and will be able to keep their health insurance and other benefits. Affected staff will be eligible to collect unemployment benefits, as well as additional dollars through the federal CARES Act.
Wynne said unemployment insurance will not cover a worker’s entire salary, but between the unemployment dollars and the CARES Act dollars, a majority of affected employees will likely still receive most of what they currently earn. Wynne said that would not be possible without the CARES Act.
“Together, that should keep most employees whole,” Wynne said.
This change is only for staff and, at present, does not affect faculty.
Affected staff will likely see the changes during the mid-May pay period through the end of July, Wynne said. It’s unknown how many employees and what areas will be affected by the change as department leaders spend time in the coming days discussing plans with their employees.
If a reduction in hours needs to continue beyond July 31, a separate process will be followed and communicated to the campus community, the university said in an email to employees Friday morning.
UND is not alone in making employment adjustments during the pandemic. Minnesota State University Moorhead announced Wednesday, April 15, that it will be cutting more than 60 positions, as well as eliminating 10 major programs. North Dakota State University announced Friday it could be facing additional budget cuts but officials there don’t yet know what the cuts will include.
At UND, leaders are hesitant to call the changes a furlough. Instead, they define it as a reduction in hours and note that employees could be called back at any time before July 31.
“I just want to be careful about the language because there is this interpretation that a furlough or (a reduction in force) means people are being terminated and that is not what is happening here,” Meloney Linder, vice president for marketing and communications, said Friday.
UND has already enacted a “hiring chill,” Wynne noted, meaning the university is analyzing each open position and attempting to decide if the position is essential to its mission.
Cuts remain a possibility if student enrollment drops significantly during the next academic year, Wynne said.
The temporary changes will give the university time to gain a better understanding of what its fall enrollment numbers could look like and what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the university’s budget, Wynne said.
“We obviously would like to get the greatest amount of cash on hand that we can without jeopardizing the operation of the university and without impacting any more people than we have to,” Wynne said.
While enrollment could increase amid an economic downturn, as it has in the past, the university is planning for an approximately 10% reduction in tuition revenue for the next academic year, Wynne said.
“We need to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said.
Wynne said he and incoming UND President Andrew Armacost do not want to have to go “into defensive mode.” The leaders also want to find areas where UND could expand its reach, such as online. The university wants to avoid “across-the-board anything,” whether that means cuts or reduction in hours for all employees.
“That's a failure of leadership,” Wynne said. “We need to be selective and continue those mission-critical things that will ensure that we will be here and be even better in the future.”
This is not the first time the university has had to deal with significant budget changes. The entire North Dakota University System saw a great reduction in funding during the 2015-17 biennium, which meant the loss of hundreds of jobs, including at UND.
But this time it’s different, Wynne said. The university had time to plan for those changes. This one comes quickly and with uncertainty about the future.
“This has been much more sudden, and has impacted ways where we would not have otherwise,” Wynne said.
The changes have halted other areas of revenue for the university, including grounding its flight operations nearly overnight because of a health crisis. The pandemic has reduced the number of people visiting the university’s clinics operated in Minot and Bismarck, thereby reducing the reimbursement it gets through insurance premiums.
The pandemic also has shuttered dorm rooms and caused the university to repay – rightly, Wynne notes – for unused meals and housing costs.