University of Minnesota Extension cuts jobs, replaces others with non-union work

As the University of Minnesota Extension restructures a program that educates low-income families about nutrition, many union jobs will be lost.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education is cutting about 44 percent of its staff and creating new, non-union jobs similar to the previously unionized positions.

Community nutrition educators have priority when applying for 45 new, non-union positions, called community program specialists. Up to another 12 union workers will be hired back as still-unionized community nutrition educators.

“Our No. 1 goal is to fill as many of these positions as we can with our current employees,” Extension Dean Beverly Durgan said.

Employees not hired for the new positions will face layoff notices in mid-January. The program is cutting 67 of its 152 employees.

AFSCME local 3937 UMN technical workers, which represents those who lost their jobs, said this switch will eliminate job security offered by a union while upping the workload, according to a statement from the union.

Union president Barb Bezat said the cuts are more significant than they seem.

“They’re posting 45 non-union positions that we contend … describe exactly the work that those people who are getting laid off do,” Bezat said.

But Durgan said the new positions aren’t the same as the current union-held nutritionist jobs.

“It is a substantially different job description than what it was for the community nutrition educators,” Durgan said. “The issue was not whether this would be union or not union.”

Formally known as food stamps, SNAP is a federally run program that helps low-income people buy food. SNAP-Ed, a subsection of the program, educates Minnesotans about proper nutrition and how to best spend a limited food budget.

Under the new structure, the nutritionists will serve Minnesota regions rather than single counties.

SNAP-Ed nutritionists often work in food shelves, schools and YMCAs, Bezat said.

As part of national cuts to SNAP, Durgan said the University’s Extension program saw its funding drop from $8.7 million to $6.3 million.

Future funding prospects for the University’s SNAP-Ed program are contingent on the next Farm Bill, which isn’t yet finalized.

Bezat said many workers who could be laid off have questioned why job cuts couldn’t wait until after the Farm Bill is finalized. She said she’s asked the Extension officials to wait until then before making cuts with no avail.

Gloria Wolf, a community nutrition educator and AFSCME 3937 member, said she had just two weeks to apply for one of the new positions under the restructured program. Wolf said she didn’t expect cuts to the program until after the Farm Bill’s finalization.

“It was certainly a great shock to us at how deep the cuts are happening for us,” she said.

But Durgan said Extension has been trying to fill budget gaps caused by the sequester in January 2013, making cuts necessary.

“We only have enough money for this program until February,” Durgan said.

If Farm Bill funding is reinstated, she said, additional SNAP-Ed educators will be added to the restructured program.

Bezat said Extension hadn’t met with AFSCME workers before announcing the restructuring — something she says is required as part of the union’s collective bargaining rights.

“The timing [of the cuts] is unbelievable to me, and the speed at which they’re doing this is unprecedented, given the number of people they expect and propose to lay off,” Bezat said.

Durgan said she hopes funding is reinstated, but she said the program can’t continue deficit spending.

“It’s not about getting rid of employees,” Durgan said. “It’s about trying to make sure that we’re being fiscally responsible.”