Monday, August 9, 2010

Our View - When do layoffs start to count as layoffs?

Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dec. 6, 2009

Our View - When do layoffs start to count as layoffs?

If we didn't know that the statement simply wasn't true, we would've been ecstatic to hear University of Iowa President Sally Mason tell a group of students Wednesday that UI has been able to weather the massive state budget cuts without any layoffs.

"To date, we haven't had to lay off anyone," the UI president said, after explaining how the flood of 2008 helped prepare the university to weather the budget storms of 2009.

But we know UI announced last month that it was closing the medical instrument shop in the Carver College of Medicine and that eight employees in the shop received layoff notices. And the same day that Mason was participating in the student forum, the Press-Citizen was working on a story about how the university was laying off 11 people in its College of Pharmacy manufacturing department, UI Pharmaceuticals.

That's why Mason later had to clarify her statement and explain that whenever UI officials say there have been "no layoffs," they're actually talking about how there have been no layoffs directly connected to the state budget cuts. The state budget supports the general education fund, or the academic component of UI. The pharmaceutical department and the instrument shop, on the other hand, are in self-funded units. Therefore, even though there are layoffs in those areas, they're not the kind of "layoffs" that can stop UI officials from saying that no one has been laid off.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said that the pharmacy college layoffs weren't due directly to the state budget cuts but to a "decline in the demand for their service caused by the general economic climate." Yet the pharmacy layoffs still need to be approved by the Iowa state Board of Regents. (And, as of Thursday, it was unclear when the regents would consider it.)

When asked if there will be more layoffs, Moore responded, "UI leaders continue to work very hard to preserve jobs to the greatest extent possible. Additional layoffs could be possible."

UI officials said in the spring that they expected layoffs, but an influx of $35.5 million in federal stimulus funds staved off job cuts. In June, faced with a $10.8 million shortfall, Mason said a worse-case scenario was 130 layoffs that could be announced in December or January. However, because of better-than-expected results from cost cutting measures, Mason said in October that there would be few -- up to 20 -- if any layoffs. University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, which has a separate budget, laid off about 150 workers in June, according to human resources data.

We certainly hope that university administrators and regents can figure how to avoid losing any more employees -- who administrators in the past have called their "most precious" assets. And we commend UI officials for their relatively successful efforts to keep that number as low as possible.

But there is a thin line between decisions directly and indirectly affected by the state budget cuts and the current economic climate. And UI officials do themselves no favors by seeming to discount (or under-count) the jobs that have been lost throughout the university this year.

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