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SOU furloughs more than 300

Southern Oregon University plans to furlough more than 300 employees in a cost-cutting measure that university officials say will allow them to avoid layoffs for now.

In the coming months, 291 employees will work one less day a week, resulting in a 20% pay cut, according to officials. Another 46 employees will see a 40% pay cut, bringing the number of affected employees to 337, officials said at a news conference held via Zoom.

Closure of the campus in March due to the pandemic cut SOU’s housing and dining hall revenue by almost $3 million and brought an enrollment drop that will cost $1 million, said President Linda Schott.

SOU is also expecting a dip in funding from the state, which is expected to add further to the existing $3 million budget deficit officials have been working to eliminate over a few years.

Schott said she wanted the university, as the largest employer in Ashland, to cause minimal harm to the local economy in its cost-cutting measures. Behind the furloughs is the concept of a “shared sacrifice,” she said, in which all full-time classified and unclassified employees are sharing the hit.

Only faculty are spared from the pay cut, which Schott attributed to the fact that they worked throughout spring break to transition from in-person teaching to remote-only instruction. Schott will take on a 25% reduction to her salary.

“They are not part of this first action,” she said.

Officials hope that the WorkShare Oregon program, through which furloughed employees can recoup some of their wages through unemployment insurance, will offer some relief. Laid-off employees would not be eligible for coverage through the program, nor would they be able to keep their health insurance or other benefits.

“Members say time and time again, protecting benefits is top priority,” said Ben Morris, communications director for the SEIU Local 503, the union representing classified employees at Oregon’s public universities. The WorkShare option, he said, is “a benefit to both the university and our members who will be able to remain employed and use unemployment insurance to recoup hopefully all of their income.”

Unclassified administrative workers also shouldered a cut.

The university has worked in recent years to narrow a deficit in its own budget, the result of falling student enrollment and other factors. It recovered $300,000 this school year by way of a hiring freeze in mid-April, for example.

SOU will receive a $3.4 million grant from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security Act, which will be split two ways. Half, or $1.7 million, will go directly “into the hands of students,” said Greg Perkinson, vice president for finance and administration, in the form of emergency grants.

The rest will be the university’s to spend, though officials are still seeking guidance from the federal government on how to allocate the funds.

But the cuts and aid aren’t enough to make up for the shortfall that’s coming.

Perkinson said the school needs to make up $10 million through the coming fiscal year, but “what we don’t know is huge. We would love lots of students to come back in the fall and, if so, we could dial the furlough program back.”

Schott said she’s been told to expect a cut in state support next year of about $3.1 million. State lottery revenues have also “greatly declined,” she said, which will mean a $300,000 shortfall this year, and as much as $1.2 million next year.

Meanwhile, Schott said, experts are predicting an average 15 percent drop in enrollment nationwide due to effects from the coronavirus.

Some 600 students have left university housing and gone home during spring term, causing the revenue gap, said Perkinson. Over 200 students chose to live in campus housing during the shutdown and get meals from student dining facilities or in town. Local quilters have made face masks for them.

The school reports no COVID-19 infections, although one student tested positive upon returning from abroad — but did not enter Oregon, said Perkinson.

SOU likely will continue remote classes through the summer, Schott said.

Officials are discussing the start of fall term in September as the earliest likely return to on-campus classes, if conditions permit. Schott said there’s no certainty about when opening will happen, but SOU is in close communication with Gov. Kate Brown’s office.

“We’re monitoring very carefully what the governor is saying about reopening,” said Schott. “We have a group collaborating with the city and county to keep everyone healthy as we do it.”

With regard to sporting and other events, “it doesn’t look like large gatherings of thousands will be allowed soon, but they’re thinking about smaller gatherings by mid-June.”

Schott said the four-day weeks will continue until the end of the year. Beyond that, it’ll be back to the drawing board.

“It’s not realistic to expect employees to have a 20% reduction forever,” she said. “We don’t want to lay people off until we absolutely have to.”

“This is no fun for anyone,” said Schott, “but we’re going to be OK. We’re going to advocate for more federal relief dollars. We understand we’re a critical part of the Rogue Valley and Ashland economy, and we’re going to keep SOU whole. I’ll do whatever it takes to get through this crisis.”

Schott emphasized that she and other officials want to keep the impacts on tuition low.

“If we did that, the increase would be in the high double digits. ... I do not intend to close this budget gap on the backs of students and their families.”

Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay contributed reporting.

file photoA student returns to campus after picking up lunch in between Shasta Hall and McLoughlin Hall at SOU.