Union leaders are fighting the layoffs of 25 University of Minnesota Office of Information Technology employees, citing problems with understaffing and the way the layoffs occurred.
Representatives from the University’s clerical union have filed grievances on the layoffs and requested the University re-evaluate them. They also addressed the Board of Regents at its public forum on the University budget last week about the layoffs, which occurred late last month.
OIT cited workload reductions as the reason behind the layoffs and insisted they were carried out according to the University’s policy, but union members objected and said it was executed disrespectfully.
Employees were given their layoff notices and told to leave on the spot, said Melanie Steinman of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3800 in an address to the regents. The employees were told to schedule an appointment to collect the rest of their belongings during non-work hours and were prevented from communicating with coworkers, she said.
The layoffs occurred because of workload reductions and changes in the information technology industry, said OIT Associate Vice President Bernard Gulachek. Several employee groups were affected, including a Professional and Administrative senior manager, civil service employees and union employees from both clerical and technical areas.
The affected employees work has changed significantly, and they are no longer needed, Gulachek said.
“These folks were mostly folks that built networks,” he said, “and today we’re in more of a maintenance mode.”
Gulachek said OIT approached the layoffs with sensitivity and tried to ensure the privacy of affected employees who met with their supervisors and a representative from the Office of Human Resources.
Employees were asked not to discuss the matter with co-workers who may not have had a meeting yet. Gulachek said they collected essential personal belongings right away and scheduled a time to return for the rest.
Gulachek said the process for the layoffs was standard in the information technology industry and followed OHR and University policies.
“This isn’t the IT industry. This is the University of Minnesota,” said AFSCME 3800 President Cherrene Horazuk, who works as aide to the dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
She said in addition to meeting with OHR and OIT, the union has also sent letters to University leaders about the effects the staffing cuts will have on campus operations.
Horazuk said she is particularly concerned about cuts in staff members who provide directory assistance. She said there is now one employee to field calls from the Twin Cities campus information line — a duty previously shared by at least three employees.
“They said that the work is going away, that there’s just not enough work there for these positions,” she said. “I think all it takes is calling 625-5000 and ask[ing] some complicated questions and seeing how long you’re put on hold.”
Of the 25 employees laid off, eight were telecom engineering technicians who wire and repair the University’s telephone network, said Barb Bezat, president of AFSCME Local 3937, which represents University technical employees. There were originally 17 employees in this position, so the layoffs cut the telecom technician workforce almost in half, she said.
St. Paul resident David Wenda worked at the University as a telecom engineering technician for almost seven years before being laid off in May.
Though he was initially assigned to the health sciences area, Wenda said he also worked on the West Bank, St. Paul campus, the University’s Landscape Arboretum and even the University’s Rochester and Morris campuses because his position was short-staffed.
Wenda’s supervisors told him the workload was decreasing, he said, which is hard to believe because buildings like Northrop Memorial Auditorium, the Physics and Nanotechnology Building and the 17th Avenue Residence Hall still need to be wired into the University system.
“That all takes time and people,” he said. “You can’t just plug into the wall.”
With nearly half the workforce doing the tasks he was responsible for gone, Wenda said he worries about how long his old customers will have to wait to get repairs done.
Wenda, 55, said he plans to stay on the layoff list in hopes of being hired back by the University.
“At my age, it’s going to be tough to find a job,” he said. “It’s not going to work out very well for me.”
With one of his children still in college, Wenda said he and his wife are trying to figure out how to cut expenses. When the phone rings, he said he keeps hoping for a call from a prospective employer.
“The phone keeps ringing,” he said. “Hopefully one of them will be picking me up.”