Layoffs would have ‘negative ripple effects across the entire region’

AMHERST — Just hours before unions at the University of Massachusetts agreed to a plan to prevent layoffs through January, Amherst Town Council crafted a letter to Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy urging him to keep in mind the impact possible job cuts and furloughs of university employees would have on the livelihoods of residents and the well-being of the community.

“As we hear that the campus administration is considering massive layoffs and furloughs, we are very concerned,” the council writes in the letter finalized at its meeting Monday. “Such actions would hurt local businesses, negatively impact our town and have negative ripple effects across the entire region.”

The letter also notes that any layoffs would disproportionally affect low-income employees at the campus dining halls and buildings and grounds departments, the majority of whom are people of color, and that employees and their families with housing provided by the university may be forced to find their own housing.

“We are depending on you and urge you to consider the needs of the full Amherst community in this difficult time,” the letter concludes.

The letter comes in response to a request from the UMass Amherst Unions United, a coalition of faculty, staff, student and post-graduate employee unions.

Jennifer Page, secretary for the UMass Amherst Professional Staff, appealed for the council to take some action due to what the unions view as an “unreasonable and damaging proposal” for confronting significant budget gaps caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Page wrote in an email that she is satisfied by the council’s action.

“We’re all part of an ecosystem, and laying off workers would have far-reaching effects,” Page wrote, following the meeting. “Our local businesses are already suffering with so few students returning to Amherst this fall. If UMass employees are laid off, that will only further harm the local economy.”

The Professional Staff Union and University Staff Association announced Tuesday an agreement that guarantees no layoffs through January and creates joint labor-management committees to address cost-saving measures that do not rely on job cuts. But most members will have to take two-week furloughs. 

At the Monday meeting, Councilors spent more than 90 minutes tweaking the contents of the communication originally drafted by District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis.

DeAngelis said layoffs are a major concern, pointing to research done by two UMass economists — Shouvik Chakraborty, a research professor at the Political Economy Research Institute, and Michael Ash, a professor in the economics department — that for every 100 UMass employees who lose their jobs, an additional 40 workers in the private sector would also become unemployed. They came to that calculation, in part, through an estimated loss of purchasing power by laid-off workers.

District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont said that the letter to Subbaswamy highlights how instrumental UMass is in protecting the financial health of Amherst.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg asked his colleagues to tone down some of the rhetoric in the draft letter and make sure that the council wasn’t taking sides or interfering in contract negotiations.

Steinberg also noted his discomfort in sending a letter after Town Manager Paul Bockelman, with support from the council, told Subbaswamy about his concerns for public health if students returned to campus in the fall. After the university announced about 7,000 students would be living on campus — about 5o% to 60% of the traditional population — that number was reduced in August to about 1,100.

At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer said she also had concerns with the original letter, which outlined several cost-saving measures proposed by employees and questioned whether the university was negotiating in good faith.

The council removed those details and a paragraph stating, “You have not responded to these proposals or to requests for relevant financial data, including the total of the systems’ reserves. We ask that you, in the spirit of thoughtful collaboration, cooperate in this effort, supply them with all relevant financial data, and bargain in good faith.”

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a projected loss of $168.6 million to the university’s operating budget and necessitated staff reductions as “an absolute last resort” after previous cost reductions, including five-day furloughs and incentives for employees to retire or resign.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected]