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Friday, May 27, 2022

Workforce Planning Enters Final Stage

This week, Middlebury is entering the final stages of its yearlong workforce planning process. On Tuesday, the college finalized employees’ acceptances of voluntary buyouts, which the college terms Incentivized Separation Plans (ISP), marking the end of a process that has been ongoing since early February.

Although an overview of which positions were eliminated and how each department is being affected has not yet been made available, the college has indicated that it is on track to meet its goal of reducing employee expenses by 10%, or about $8 million. The college plans to make an announcement about workforce planning after the Board of Trustees meeting in May, according to college spokesperson Sarah Ray. 

President Laurie L. Patton notified faculty and staff on Feb. 4 that the college had identified 150 staff positions to be eliminated, while an additional 30 new positions would be created and filled as a result of the workforce planning process. Of the 150 positions identified for reduction, though, about 100 were already vacant through attrition and restrictions on re-hiring over the last few years. Around 50 occupied full- and part-time staff positions, including roughly 42 full-time positions, were set to be eliminated over the next few years, according to an email sent the following day to faculty and staff.  

Because many staff share job titles, the college sent buyout applications to 80 employees on Feb. 8, although only 42 of their positions needed to be eliminated. Those employees had until March 11 to submit if they wished to receive a buyout. Staff members in affected positions were notified by their supervisors before receiving a buyout application from the college. 

All employees eligible for buyouts were also granted access to a private job portal where they could apply to thirty new positions, which had been created as part of the workforce planning process, before they were made broadly available. This was part of the college’s effort to reduce the workforce and eliminate staff positions, while ensuring that the separation process was voluntary.

The second week of March, a few days after applications for buyout packages were due, official offers were sent out. In accordance with state law, employees had 45 days, or until April 29, to accept the buyouts. The exact contents of the package varied depending on salary and duration of employment at Middlebury. Following the April 29 deadline, staff were entitled to a seven-day period during which they could rescind their acceptance.  

Although administrators will not  know definitively until after accepted separation offers are finalized on May 7, college communications so far suggest that there will be no need for involuntary layoffs, which had been mentioned as a possible last resort if not enough employees took buyouts. Most recently, a March 15 email to faculty and staff said that the 47 buyout applications “put us on track to achieve our goal” of reducing employee compensation by 10%.

For some staff members, especially those already planning to retire, the buyout was a welcome opportunity. For others, the process has been draining, especially when paired with the implementation of Oracle, a new online financial platform that some staff complain is difficult to navigate. 

“I’ve worked here for 18 years, and right now stress levels are the highest I’ve ever seen them,” said Missey Thompson, a staff council representative and box office coordinator at the Mahaney Center for the Arts. 

Some staff who received separation offers but did not want to leave the college were able to find new positions, either within their old department or in a new one. Others have had more trouble. 

One employee, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, currently holds a position slated to end in June. “I have been here over 31 years, and I cannot afford to take the buyout,” she told The Campus. The staff member, who applied to three newly created positions through the private portal, has been rejected from one and never heard back from the other two. Despite repeated assurances from the college that “individuals who are offered the incentive and do not take it will remain employed at Middlebury,” some staff are faced with terminated positions and limited options in the coming year.  

Still, many staff appreciate the intentionality that has gone into this process, especially compared to staff cuts the college undertook in past years, which left crucial positions unoccupied or left longtime employees abruptly out of work. Nonetheless, the communication (or lack thereof) from leadership throughout the months-long process added an additional layer to an already nerve-wracking process. 

On more than one occasion, staff learned details about the progress of workforce planning from media reports before receiving any communication from the administration. The all-staff email announcing that letters would arrive within the week notifying staff their position had been terminated, along with a buyout offer, was not sent until Feb. 4, five days after a Jan. 31 Addison Independent article containing the same news. And many staff had been unaware that up to 40 new positions would be created through workforce planning until The Campus reported that fact in February. That figure was eventually lowered to 30.

Staff also report experiencing limited communication across departments. Since each department had its own restructuring plan to eliminate 10% of personnel expenses, much communication about buyouts was left to individual department leaders — a decentralized approach that led to miscommunications and confusion as staff heard about reductions and changes in other departments through word of mouth. 

Tim Parsons, the president of staff council, says this has contributed to a lingering anxiety among staff. “With differing levels of communications by department, the process did not go as smoothly as we had hoped across the institution,” Parsons told The Campus. “We’re still waiting to hear what the future state will be.”

 The “future state” Parsons referred to is how work will be redistributed following the departure of those who accepted buyout offers. But without knowing exactly how responsibilities will be allocated, many departments are concerned that they will be expected to do the same amount of work with less staff. While the administration has repeatedly assured staff that this will not be the case, the lack of clarity on a future state has left some department heads and managers on edge. Staff hope the finalization of buyout offers this week will finally provide a clear picture of the composition of workforce planning going forward.