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SOU classified employees get ‘historic’ 5-year labor agreement

Classified employees at Southern Oregon University will keep many of their job benefits and get some new ones thanks to a deal struck last week between their union and the state’s seven public universities.

Johnny Earl, custodial coordinator at the University of Oregon, who also serves as chairman of the higher education bargaining team for 2021-25, dubbed the agreement “historic” in an interview with the Mail Tribune.

“Our union has been bargaining with the universities for 45 years. This is the first time we’ve ever received a five-year contract,” he said, referring to Service Employees International Union 503. “It’s the best agreement we’ve ever had.”

Earl described classified employees as people in nonmanagerial, hourly wage positions. Classified employees work in academic, operational and administrative departments and can earn annual wages of approximately $30,000 to more than $100,000, according to a news release announcing the agreement.

The new contract covers approximately 4,600 classified staff members who are part of SEIU, the release noted. SOU has about 180 of them, according to a university spokesperson.

The Ashland institution referred all questions about the contract to Steve Clark, vice president for university relations and marketing at Oregon State University.

“It isn’t just about the numbers; it’s about what these individuals contribute,” Clark said, referring to the contract. “Without classified employees, universities don’t operate. At SOU, 180 classified employees are essential, and this contract is a mutual agreement that recognizes those essential contributions.”

The contract was not provided with the news release sent to media outlets. The Mail Tribune requested a copy from Union 503, but did not receive it on deadline. The news release, however, shed light on many critical aspects of the deal.

That includes the fact that all current benefits — including health care, pension, holidays, vacations, sick leave, personal leave and bereavement — will remain in effect for the next contract (2021-26). However, some of those benefits are subject to potential changes that may be negotiated during the parties’ economic contract “reopener” in 2023-24.

The agreement also includes a one-time bonus of up to $1,500 for those who were required to work during the pandemic and “contributed to health and safety initiatives”; a 5.6% cost of living adjustment in effect next year; step wage increases of 4.75% for the next four years; and an entry-level wage increase of $15/hour.

“Finally, the university is able to compete with McDonald’s and Burger King, whose wages have been up throughout the valley,” Earl said. “We’ve had a hard time securing some of our lowest wage positions on our campus. That is a proud moment [to increase the minimum wage].”

Other benefits include allowing classified employees to work remotely; paid time available when campus is closed or openings delayed due to weather or hazardous conditions; and Junteenth, signed into law as a national holiday earlier this year, designated as a paid day off.

That contract still needs a vote from the union before approval by the university presidents, including SOU’s Linda Schott. She issued a joint statement with her counterparts praising the deal, which will likely be ratified by January.

“We are very pleased to have a tentative agreement with SEIU-represented classified employees who contribute importantly to the education of nearly 97,000 Oregon public university students,” the presidents’ statement said. “We are deeply appreciative of the contributions that these employees provide each day.”

Earl praised the presidents for their work and put it into perspective, noting how, two years ago, some employees were on the verge of going on strike.

What was beneficial to labor contract negotiations for both parties this time around was the fact that higher education received so much money from the Legislature.

“There was more money to go around based on the state coffers being full,” Earl said. “[That allowed us] to get a better contract.”

Clark agreed, saying the extension allowed them to reach a five-year contract.

“I can assure you those groups worked to reach agreement on those priorities, where possible,” he said. “In most cases, not everyone gets everything they want. It takes collaboration to settle.”

After a “long drawn-out battle,” Earl believes the agreement signifies universities are recognizing “the value of its essential workers.”

“Without the classified staff, the universities are not running without them,” he said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.