UW Oshkosh employees take furlough to offset pandemic financial hit

Joseph Schulz, Managing Editor

If you’re attending classes at UW Oshkosh this semester, then you’ve probably heard professors mention spending time on “furlough.”

But what does that mean?

Essentially, faculty members are taking pay cuts to get the university through a tough financial period created by the coronavirus pandemic, low enrollment and a lack of state aid.

At a virtual town hall on Sept. 15, Chancellor Andrew Leavitt said UWO had roughly 6-7% fewer students than last year, which is less than anticipated.

“We were very conservative in how we budgeted for this year, assuming a larger student drop, and a GPR (general purpose revenue) reduction as well,” Leavitt said. “If things work out … our first priority will be to move everybody off of furlough.”

Even so, UWO professors will be on a “graduated furlough” from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31, meaning the higher-paid employees are required to take more unpaid time off than lower-paid employees.

For example, UWO employees making $60,000 or more are required to take eight furlough days during that time, a monthly pay reduction of about 9%.

Employees making between $46,000 and $59,999 are required to take six furlough days, a monthly pay reduction of about 6.8%. And employees making between $33,000 and $45,999 are required to take four furlough days, a 4.5% reduction.

The decision of which days — or partial days — to take off for furlough is left largely up to individual faculty members, according to Political Science professor and Faculty Senate President Druscilla Scribner.

“It’s relatively flexible when you take [furlough]; we don’t take them when we’re teaching,” Scribner said.

Over the summer, UWO Administration met with shared governance leaders from the Faculty Senate, Senate of Academic Staff, University Staff Senate and the Access Campuses before deciding to settle on the graduated furlough.

Political Science professor David Siemers, who serves on the executive committee of the United Faculty and Staff of Oshkosh, said the graduated furloughs ensure “lower-paid teachers would experience a less severe financial hit.”

Even so, Siemers wishes more could have been done to protect the “middle income” professors, which make up “the vast majority of our teachers.”

In another potential round of furloughs, he suggests the university “take a higher percentage from the few people making more than $100,000 per year, as they are the most financially fortunate.”

Employees are expected to use their furlough time for non-work related activities. Faculty, however, may work on scholarship; and Scribner says many professors, including herself, work on scholarship and other projects during their furlough time.

Because academic staff are not hourly employees, Scribner explained that they often work more than 40 hours a week, so even with the furlough “you still end up doing the same amount of work.”

“Everybody’s really still doing their job,” she said.

Even so, Scribner says the furlough does create an added “financial stress,” which is part of the reason the university went with a graduated furlough.

“That was a decision the chancellor made that, I think, is supportive of understanding that burden,” Scribner said. “It’s definitely a burden for everybody, but we’re in tough times and faculty recognize that.”

In order to prevent future furloughs, the state legislature needs to make supporting the UW System a priority, she added.

“We have elected a legislature that is not particularly supportive of higher education over the long, and it shows,” Scribner said. “We’ve had declining support for a while. It’s not new.”

To see lasting change, she added that “it would take pressure on the legislature, but it also might take new people in the legislature, who are more supportive of higher education and recognize how important an investment in the UW System is for the health of the state.”