‘We should be getting that back’: Staff union seeks reinstatement of benefits as pandemic endures

The+Emerson+Staff+Union+is+hoping+to+have+some+of+their+sacrificed+benefits+reinstated%2C+especially+for+some+of+the+at-risk+staff+members.

Photo: Beacon Archives

The Emerson Staff Union is hoping to have some of their sacrificed benefits reinstated, especially for some of the at-risk staff members.

By Domenic Conte, Magazine Editor

Members of Emerson’s staff union are vying to return to their hard-earned pre-pandemic financial safeguards after enduring a semester without the benefits they sacrificed to the college to help ward off the layoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Several staff union members, some of whom are among the lower-earning college employees, are seeking a reinstatement of their 3.9 percent salary increase—an annual benefit they suspended to help lessen the college’s potential losses, once predicted to be as high as $76 million. Now, as college-wide increases in healthcare premiums and cost of living expenses impede employees even further, staff members who spoke to The Beacon are asking for a reimbursement from the college, which administrators say is in a better-than-expected financial state after this semester.

“A lot of us are in a precarious situation financially, and don’t have any savings to lean back on if we either get laid off or don’t get the raises,” union member Estelle Ticktin, an administrative associate in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department, said.

In addition to forfeiting their salary increase and travel benefits that they fought two years to earn, the union have had their retirement account matches suspended, halting the college’s retirement contributions that typically triple the amount employees put down. 

Outside of the financial sacrifices, health care premiums across the college are up nine percent this year, after increasing 17 percent the year prior. And the cost of living in a major metropolitan area, plus the new expenses of remote working, pile up for staffers.

“Rents go up every year whether or not you get a raise…so say you don’t get a raise in October, and your rent goes up, and you need medication to stay alive…and [you hear] ‘No, we’re not giving you anything extra to cover that,'” said Shaylin Hogan, vice chair of the staff union. “It’s a perfect storm, and we have a number of people who are in that situation.”

Staff agreed to accept the cuts after the administration warned them of potential losses for the fall and the possibility of layoffs among staff as well as other areas in the college. During the summer, administrators projected between $33 and $76 million in lost revenue as a result of transitioning to a hybrid semester. However the college has been able to navigate the semester without enforcing layoffs or furloughs seen at other schools like Boston University that affected more than 200 employees. 

But Emerson administrators have both privately and publicly noted a better fiscal semester than what they initially projected. Officials are now “cautiously optimistic” about their current state, Vice President of Administration and Finance Paul Dworkis said in a faculty forum last month alongside other members of administration, including President M. Lee Pelton and Vice President of Academic Affairs Michaele Whelan.

Now, staff union members, some of whom are in precarious financial situations, want the benefits that were cut back, especially the annual salary increases.

“The college seems to be in a better place than we anticipated, so we are really wanting them to give this raise back,” Ticktin said. “Since we did our part, if it’s not needed, then we should be getting that back. Because the college may be doing better than they thought, but most of us are not.” 

Pelton lauded the college’s navigation of the pandemic’s financial ramifications in his annual State of the College address last week. He noted $8.5 million in various lost revenues covered, which includes money lost through room and board refunds and through the cancellation of summer and international programs. They also made up revenue lost from the shortened spring semester, including financial aid expenses and costs from testing, and other pandemic-era procedures.

Whelan deferred comment on the state of the staff union’s benefits to Chief Human Resources Officer Shari Stier. Stier and Director of Human Resources Cathy Carney also did not respond to repeated email requests for comment. 

Some members have floated the idea of a retroactive salary increase, meaning the benefits missed be reinstated dating back to Oct. 1. At the very least, Ticktin said administration should consider reinstituting benefits to those earning the least. 

“If it’s possible, and we’re in a better shape, and they can give some of that money back, at least give it back to those on the lower ends of the pay scale,” Ticktin said. “Those of us on the lower end of the staff range could really use it.”

The financial consequences of working from home have also surfaced among staff members. With no office or campus to go to, some staff have faced increases in heating bills. Others have had to take on other miscellaneous expenses, like upgrading their internet routers.

John-Albert Moseley, a program coordinator in the VMA department, said the college has not provided assistance with the additional unexpected costs of working without an office or on-campus resources.

“Things like heat are going up, I have to have a reliable internet and had to increase my internet capacity to work, and the college isn’t really giving compensation for that,” Moseley said.

Multiple union members mentioned mutual aid efforts within and outside the union that are being put in place to help the vulnerable staff members of the staff community. 

Although the sacrifices put many staff members in dire financial straits, several union members still maintain the need to compromise to prevent layoffs.

“If our only alternative is people losing their jobs, or students not having the programs that they need to be successful, then we’ll give it up for better or for worse…unfortunately for some people, it’s hard for them to afford doing that,” Hogan said.

Moseley said the union’s agreement to the college’s terms over the summer was largely based on the hope that staff would receive a guarantee or a timetable on when raises may return, neither of which have come to fruition.

“We wanted to make sure that if we give these things back—which adds to up to about 13 percent loss in our compensation for this year—we wanted something like a guarantee that the college wouldn’t lay us off,” Moseley said. “We really didn’t get much in return, but we knew that agreeing to these things was something we had to do to make the college work.”

As part of the efforts to mitigate financial loss at the start of the semester, senior leadership within the college accepted a 10 percent salary reduction. It’s unclear when their salary cuts will return, along with the staff’s benefits. Hogan said that in last month’s staff forum, when the question was raised of whether or not the staff union’s raises will be returned along with the upper administration’s salaries when they eventually return, the response was discouraging.

“They were like, ‘We have no immediate plans to return [salary reductions],’ which is good, but it also isn’t ‘Of course you’ll get your raises back,’” Hogan said. “I understand they can’t really make vast promises in those meetings, but I would love something.”

Other unions sacrificed this semester as well, but the staff union was hardest hit—members of the full-time and affiliated faculty union kept their salary increases.

Now, union members fear they may struggle to get benefits back. Their previous negotiation for annual raises took two years, and was finalized in 2018 shortly before the college hired Jackson Lewis P.C., a law firm that specializes in labor relations and is tasked with handling union negotiations. 

“Our negotiations for the first contract were pretty rough,” said Wade, who was on the first contract committee. “But even Emerson, with our values, which I do think people at the top hold these values…we did have to scrape and fight for almost everything that we got in that contract.”

The presence of Jackson Lewis has troubled staff union members. The firm, which is often referred to as one of the top union-busting law firms in the country, proves to union members that the college is not as union-friendly as they may say, Moseley said. 

“They are by far the nation’s most rabid anti-labor law firm,” Moseley said. “And the fact that the college claims to want to have a good labor-management relationship, hiring them…. to us, it sends a really strong message that the college is not really interested in workers’ rights and really interested in fairness in our negotiations. The cause went from being cooperative and generally non-confrontational to symbolically hiring this firm to be anti-labor.”

This semester’s interactions with college leadership has frustrated union members, who belong to a staff that is 36 percent Emerson alumni.

“We try as much as possible to work with the college,” Hogan said. “The reason that we work at Emerson is because we like working at Emerson, we love the students, and we love being here. It’s just a matter of sometimes the institution, the administration, needs to recognize that.” 

Anna Feder, the director of programming in the Visual and Media Arts department and member of the staff union, said the current frustrations serve as another example of how the staff feel like an afterthought to the college. 

“When the college was in dire circumstances, we sacrificed, and we sacrificed a lot, and there’s really been no acknowledgment,” Feder said. “There’s talk about the sacrifice of students, the sacrifice of faculty, but the staff are always a footnote in any of these conversations. The staff continue to sacrifice for this institution, and the institution pays only the barest of lip service to those sacrifices.”

“[The college] does recognize service to the college,” she said. “But most of my colleagues, rather than thank-you letters, would rather be paid enough to live on, and to be able to afford their rent, and food, and healthcare, and student loans—some of them from their education at Emerson.”