Keene State College has begun furloughing employees as it faces an $8.7 million budget deficit, about two-thirds of which it attributes to the COVID-19 pandemic.
College President Melinda Treadwell said Friday that 92 adjunct staff members working in student-support activities such as recreation, athletics and student life were furloughed this past week.
The jobs held by these employees are directly affected by students not being on campus, causing some not to have any work and others to be working reduced hours, she said. They continued to get paid at their full rates despite these changes, according to Treadwell. However, with so much uncertainty about the college’s finances this year and next, the arrangement couldn’t continue, she said.
“Given the disruption, we need to preserve our cash resources, and payroll is part of that,” she explained. “It’s terrible, it’s hard, and it’s necessary.”
Plymouth State University and the University of New Hampshire, which, like Keene State, are part of the University System of New Hampshire, have also given notice to their adjunct staff members about furloughs, she said.
Keene State College has a workforce of about 700 people and is one of the largest employers in the city.
An emergency furlough policy approved April 9 by the University System chancellor and presidents of its member colleges in response to the pandemic allows its schools, including Keene State, to furlough employees for up to 120 days, anticipating they’ll be recalled to work. During their time without work and pay, employees can apply for unemployment, and the University System will continue to cover its share of their benefits, including medical and dental insurance. Employees will still be responsible for paying their share of the premiums, according to the policy.
Besides the 92 staff members, it’s likely more furloughs at Keene State will be coming, as college officials will review other staff positions that are outside the adjunct category next week, Treadwell said.
She said she anticipates recalling furloughed Keene State employees beginning in June or July as the college prepares to open for the fall semester.
“Frankly, I don’t want to lose talent,” she said. “It says something to an employee to be laid off. It says something different that we don’t have the work for you now, but we’ll bring you back as soon as we can.”
Students at the college have been finishing their spring semester classes online. Treadwell announced during the week leading up to spring break in mid-March that in-person classes would be suspended until April 6 due to concerns about the novel coronavirus. At that point, the plan was to offer courses remotely during the two weeks after break.
About a week later, Treadwell announced that remote instruction would continue to the end of the semester, after a faculty member tested positive for the contagious disease.
Regarding the college’s finances, Treadwell said the current budget, for fiscal year 2020, has taken a $5.5 million hit since the pandemic, mostly due to refunding students for room, board and fees.
Those refunds are projected to be $6.5 million, according to an April 17 email from Treadwell to faculty and staff. College officials have also projected an added cost of $538,847 to transition to remote learning.
Prior to the pandemic, the college was looking at a $3 million shortfall.
The federal CARES Act, passed by Congress in response to the pandemic, doesn’t reimburse colleges and universities for room and board refunds to students, Treadwell said.
Still, Keene State is anticipating $3 million in CARES Act funding. About $1.5 million of that is to deliver financial support to students who have experienced significant financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 disruption, according to Treadwell. The remaining amount is to help fund Keene State’s move to remote learning, she said.
Across the country, colleges and universities are facing massive operating budget deficits caused by the pandemic. Many have resorted to layoffs and furloughs to try to fill the gaps, while others, like the Vermont State College System, have pondered closing campuses. In addition, students are suing colleges and universities for tuition and fee refunds, arguing, among other things things, that online classes don’t have the same value as in-person classes.
Keene State’s financial projections for fiscal year 2020 are jarring, but given the massive disruption, they are in line with other higher education institutions, Treadwell wrote in a Friday email to faculty and staff.