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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Admin-staff relations tested by health crisis

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">BENJY RENTON</a></span><br />In the last two months, relations between administrators and staff have become strained as the global health crisis puts financial and logistical strain on the college.
In the last two months, relations between administrators and staff have become strained as the global health crisis puts financial and logistical strain on the college.

As college employees geared up last summer for another presumably normal academic year, some facilities staff members, frustrated with a lack of communication from upper management and the aftershocks of workforce planning, contemplated forming a union.

Now, only nine months later, nothing is the same.

Efforts to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — the trade union that originally approached staff about organizing —  are all but dead in the water, many staff say. And the college, which is the largest employer in Addison County, has scrambled to keep its approximately 1,500 employees with full pay during the pandemic until at least June 30.

Yet, as unemployment surges past 20 percent statewide and Middlebury deliberates how college will look come fall, employees are divided. Some workers feel that the crisis has led to a return of the “family feel” that had, according to many, dissipated as the college expanded. The acquisition of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies (MIIS) in Monterey and the growth of the Language Schools necessitated an operations model that became more business-oriented. 

But during the pandemic, administrators have ramped up college-wide communications, reiterating that they are committed to paying staff for as long as possible, whether or not they are able to report to work. 

Other staff members — many of them working in facilities jobs in the college’s lowest pay bands — are less congratulatory. Several feel that the health crisis has only exacerbated an already strained relationship between administrators and staff, one that plummeted with workforce planning and years of insufficient pay. Some said they would still really like to see a union happen.

Most of the dozen workers The Campus spoke with for this story said the uncertainty about their employment status and pay after June 30 brought a great deal of stress. 

The Covid-19 Pay Bank

Eight days after administrators announced that the college would transition to remote learning, staff received an email outlining the college’s plan to ensure continued pay. Through a new program, the Covid-19 Pay Bank, staff would be provided an additional 21 days of paid time off. 

Three weeks later, staff received yet another email that guaranteed pay until June 30, regardless of whether or not workers had already burned through their Pay Bank days. If they had, but still had hours left in their combined time off (CTO), they would dip into those hours.

Rick Iffland, an Atwater dining hall staffer who has worked at the college for 14 years, has used some of his accrued CTO.

“The Covid Pay Bank was very gracious,” he said. “But I’ve had to use my own days now. That’s just the way it is.”

Full-time staff receive eight hours biweekly of CTO, with more hours allotted with years of experience. Staff can have over 288 hours saved up at any given time

Several staff said they were frustrated about having to dip into their CTO hours.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to be getting a paycheck,” said one custodial worker, who asked to be kept anonymous for fear of retribution from upper management, “but I am being forced to use all my banked CTO time now that the Covid Bank is used up.”

Vice President for Human Resources and Chief Risk Officer Karen Miller said she understands that staff might wish to hold onto their CTO. “But we’re operating in extraordinary times and the plan we developed was a way to ensure our commitment to wage continuity,” she said.

Communicating change

Many staff previously told The Campus that low morale mushroomed during last year’s cost-reducing workforce planning efforts.

Grace O’Dell, a career and academic advisor at MIIS and a representative on the Staff Council, said that staff were sometimes frustrated about how messages were communicated during that process.

“These crisis communications, however, have been really excellent,” she said. In particular, O’Dell said she has been reading the Covid-19 page on the college’s website for updates about the college’s budget, among other news.

Patti McCaffrey, who works in Atwater dining hall and has been with the college for 23 years, says she thinks morale might vary by department, depending on how communicative and understanding supervisors are.

“Some of it has to do with the people who are managing you,” she said. “Whether you feel like they could be more empathetic to whatever issues you might have is crucial.” 

Landscaping worker Todd Weedman agreed that communication depends on management. “I’m going to say the upper administration has been as good as they can be,” he said. “I do feel sometimes communication among supervisors and management could be better, but it could be worse.”

Some staff say that the family feel the college had allegedly lost in recent years has returned. “What more could they have done for us?” said McCaffrey. “Family is a ‘looking out for your own’ sort of thing. And I really feel like they’ve done that the best they can.” 

[pullquote speaker="Patti McCaffrey" photo="" align="right" background="off" border="left" shadow="off"]Family is a ‘looking out for your own’ sort of thing. And I really feel like they’ve done that the best they can.[/pullquote]

At the beginning of the remote work period, the college sent out a voluntary online survey to all staff, including those in Monterey and abroad. The survey in part gauged how the 695 staff who responded (45% of the college’s workforce) felt about college communications from the administration.

One comment alluded to a string of stresses staff faced this year. “Please keep in mind that this is a population already fatigued and low morale after workforce Planning, the headaches of a challenging Oracle migration, and now COVID-19,” it read. “We are ready to be inspired. The decisions the college makes in the next two weeks and how they communicate to and involve staff will ripple through the Middlebury community for years to come.”

Separately, several staff also told The Campus they are also still frustrated by the pay compression caused by this year’s wage raises.

The college has plans to potentially address the compression, pending the results of a compensation review it spearheaded this year, but that timeline has been affected by dismal budget projections for the upcoming fiscal year. Miller said the review is slated to be finished this summer, and that the college “will consider its findings in context with other decisions we must make in response to Covid-19.”

The months ahead

Dining hall staff are hoping to return to work once Governor Phil Scott lifts the stay-at-home order for the state, most likely moving to facilities or other departments on campus.

For employees deemed “essential,” like Public Safety officers, work has settled into a new normal. Public Safety Officer Rodney Grant says staff in the department are equipped with personal protection equipment and new protocols: all officers have personally fitted N95 masks; there is only one officer per car; and Parton Health Center, rather than Public Safety, is now transporting students to Porter Hospital.

Staff are now waiting to hear about what will happen after June 30, a decision that will ultimately depend both on whether the college will have students back on campus this fall — which the college will announce by June 22 — as well as a host of financial factors. Miller insisted that wage continuity will remain a priority as the college deliberates on a course of action come fall, but emphasized that the situation at hand is quite severe.

“My biggest concern is that at the end of June they will furlough me,” the anonymous custodial worker said. “Also, if they don’t furlough me, where will they put me? Will I still be able to be where I was, do what I was doing, have the same shift?”