Furloughed employees return to campus for the fall semester

Gabby Hyman | Contributing Reporter

Nearly all of the Washington University employees placed on furlough over the summer have returned to work for the fall.

On June 11, the University issued a report to faculty and staff announcing that over 1,300 university employees would be furloughed for up to 13 weeks.

The furloughs were among the most notable of several financial adjustments that Washington University implemented to relieve the more than $150 million lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Factors such as refunded student dining and housing, the cancellation of elective surgeries at the School of Medicine and new technological expenses all contributed to the significant loss.

“As difficult as this is to acknowledge, we must face the reality that we cannot address the challenges of this situation without taking a hard look at ways to cut spending in this area,” Chancellor Andrew D. Martin wrote in the email to faculty and staff in June.

According to Martin, drawing from reserve funds and the endowment would help relieve some of the financial burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, but furloughs would also be a necessary part of the cutbacks. However, Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild said that the University would do its best to support furloughed staff over the summer.

“Furloughing members of our team through the summer provides them continued access to their Wash. U. employee benefits as well as unemployment compensation from the State of Missouri and the federal government,” Wild wrote in an email to the University community on April 29.

“[The furloughs] did coincide with the stimulus that the government gave… From a financial point of view, people who were on furlough for those 12 weeks did not, on average, suffer financially,” Chair of the Department of Economics Gaetano Antinolfi said.

Fortunately, the vast majority of furloughed employees returned to work in July, according to Interim Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Julie Flory.

“No faculty members were lost, and nearly all staff who were furloughed returned to work almost three months ago,” she said.

The majority of furloughs came from Medical Campus employees, as the elimination of elective surgeries greatly reduced revenue. According to Flory, most of the furloughs from the medical campus were voluntary, and no employees permanently lost their jobs after the furloughs ended.

Antinolfi explained that throughout the furloughs, there was an understanding that they were temporary and all the faculty would come back to their positions after 13 weeks. The University decided to end the furlough a week early because 12 weeks is an important benchmark for unemployment benefits.

“Unemployment benefits are not forever: at some point… you are expected to provide evidence that you are looking for a job… and you have to take a job if it comes… these things put a person in furlough in a very difficult situation,” Antinolfi said.

On the Danforth Campus, nearly every department furloughed at least a few employees. Departments such as dining, campus services and student affairs, in which employees were unable to work on campus, were most affected.

“The [person furloughed from my department] mostly works on events, like seminars and conferences… Both of these were affected by COVID. This summer, we had very little in terms of events,” Antinofli said.

During the furlough period, which, for most employees, was from May to July, staff shortages forced departments to adapt. Antinolfi shared that his department was able to cope with the furloughs, despite the added workload.

“Toward the end it began to be hard because you have to prepare for the new academic year and you have to make sure that all the courses are in order,” he said. “There was a little bit of rush at the end.”

“We felt the other people had to do extra work but in the end it went okay,” he added. “Had it been longer than 12 weeks, I think we would have been in trouble. Towards the end I began to feel the stress… Overall, we recovered well.”

After communicating with a furloughed colleague, Antinolfi revealed that the emotional aspect of the furloughs was the most difficult and impactful.

“The psychological cost is still enormous… My concern was the personal cost on the individual that was furloughed because that can actually have lasting effects. It is not a pleasant letter to get when you have been working in a place for many years. That was what I was worried about,” he said.

Flory claimed that the impact of the furloughs on the experience of University students was almost nonexistent.

“Most student services were able to shift to virtual operations during the spring and summer, and all are fully up and running for the fall semester, either virtually or in person,” she said.

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