No benefit restoration in sight despite strong financial outlook

About+70+staff+union+members+lined+the+hallway+elbow-to-elbow+on+the+lower+level+of+the+Max+Mutchnick+Campus+Center+while+college+administrators+entered+room+L-151+for+a+contract+negotiation+with+the+union%E2%80%99s+bargaining+committee+in+April.+Chris+Van+Buskirk+%2F+Beacon+Archive.+

About 70 staff union members lined the hallway elbow-to-elbow on the lower level of the Max Mutchnick Campus Center while college administrators entered room L-151 for a contract negotiation with the union’s bargaining committee in April. Chris Van Buskirk / Beacon Archive.

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

Emerson’s financial state remains stable as the end of the 2021 fiscal year draws near, but college officials remain uncertain when they can reinstitute benefits for staff and faculty. 

In a March 26 Staff Forum, Vice President for Administration and Finance Paul Dworkis said the college’s lost revenue would land at about $30 million. This came after an initial June 2020 prediction of between $33 and $76 million in losses, and up to $100 million if the college had held a fully-online academic year. 

COVID-related costs ranged from $5 million for testing to $4 million in paying for residential and academic spaces in the Park Plaza Hotel and W Hotel, to “millions of dollars more” in retrofitting campus with Plexiglass, providing personal protective equipment, and other health expenses, according to Dworkis. 

Dworkis said these losses and investments represented “more than 15 percent of our overall budget.” Emerson’s operating revenues sit at about $300 million, according to The Boston Globe. 

“This, believe it or not, is what success looks like,” Dworkis said. “But you know, success doesn’t come easy or without sacrifice.”

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Dworkis first announced a “cautiously optimistic” financial outlook in November, but warned that this stability was contingent on residency and enrollment numbers holding steady. In order to safeguard the college’s finances in the year to come, Dworkis said enrollment, retention, residency, and fundraising were still of the utmost importance. 

Emerson is heavily reliant on tuition for its revenue—with 89 percent of annual revenue coming from those costs, according to publicly available college financial statements.

Since November, unionized staff members have implored Emerson to restore benefits—namely their annual 3.9 percent salary increase—that they temporarily ceded to prevent fiscal freefall, furloughs, or layoffs. Retirement contributions for staff and faculty were also suspended. Several other local colleges, including University of Massachusetts Boston and Boston University, furloughed their employees, placing them on temporary unpaid leave last summer.  

Dworkis did not commit to a timeline for the college’s restoration of these benefits—which are guaranteed in the union’s 2018 collective bargaining agreement. Instead, he warned the repercussions of the pandemic may present a new economic crisis that will require “austere, nimble, and responsive” action from Emerson.

“The $30 million loss scenario is possibly at the other end of the tunnel ahead,” he said. 

Dworkis said all benefits-eligible staff would receive an emailed survey in the next few weeks to gather feedback on the benefit restorations. 

“While today, I cannot make a firm commitment about salary and benefits—particularly retirement contributions—I would say again that we will manage responsibly and humanely, as we did last year,” he said. “Avoiding layoffs and furloughs are a high priority.”

Alongside staff raise freezes and retirement contribution suspensions, the college also took other measures to conserve assets. Administrators retired more than a dozen staff members through the voluntary retirement program, and enacted a hiring freeze. Executive leadership—members of the President’s Council—also received a minimum 10 percent reduction to their salaries. 

Dworkis added that there is a subcommittee to gauge what the post-pandemic “new normal” might look like, and said the college is committed to giving an advanced notice of “at least two to four weeks” regarding a change in fall reopening plans.

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