University groups call on U of A to maintain pay for laid off workers during pandemic

As the University of Alberta braces for layoffs, campus administration is facing calls to maintain the pay and benefits of workers who will lose their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

'To proceed with layoffs in the current situation is shameful'

University of Alberta president David Turpin says the provincial budget has cut $110 million from the campus budget. (David Bajer/CBC)

As the University of Alberta braces for layoffs, campus administration is facing calls to maintain the pay and benefits of workers who will lose their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university — in the face of significant government funding cuts and pressure to balance its deficit-plagued budget — eliminated 400 positions earlier this month.The university plans to cut at least 600 more positions in the coming year.

In an open letter to the university Tuesday, the cuts are condemned by five groups: the academic and non-academic staff associations, the students' union and the graduate students' and post-doctoral fellows associations.

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In the joint letter, the groups call on the university to maintain pay and health benefits for all affected employees. 

"We have now been informed that the University of Alberta is not putting planned layoffs on hold, but rather plans to proceed full steam ahead and give additional people across the university layoff notices before March 31, 2020," the letter says.

The groups say health benefits, even for workers who lost their jobs earlier this year, should continue for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, and that pay should be maintained for every worker currently on the payroll. 

"With many governments, businesses large and small, and organizations of all kinds across the continent making commitments to their workers to see them through this health crisis, it is time for the University of Alberta to join these other leaders and make the commitment to their workers that morality demands," the letter says.

"To proceed with layoffs in the current situation is shameful." 

'Extraordinarily deep' cuts 

University president David Turpin said the university had asked the Alberta government to soften the blow of budget reductions but the request was rejected. 

"The emergence of this public health crisis has put added stress on everyone," Turpin said in a statement posted online Monday. "Regrettably it has not changed or slowed the government timelines related to budget," he said.

He said the U of A must follow legislation and table a balanced budget for 2020–21 by March 31.

Hundreds of jobs could have been protected if the U of A had been able to pay for severance packages by running a deficit, Turpin said.

"We have been working with the provincial government, along with Alberta's other post-secondary institutions, to reach an agreement on having severance costs deficit financed. "We had been hopeful that these efforts would be successful, as it would reduce job losses significantly not only at the U of A (by 265) but across the sector. 

"It means that we must continue to move forward with plans for restructuring units and positions. To delay implementing plans now would only mean delaying the financial costs of severance, resulting in even more lay-offs." 

Even after deferring some capital projects and closing buildings in order to soften the blow, the government cuts are "extraordinarily deep," Turpin said.

Turpin said the provincial budget has cut $110 million from the university and it has no choice but to cut staff. 

"To balance our budget as required, we must make difficult decisions and continue to implement plans, even as we are responding to the COVID-19 crisis — a crisis that has no predictable end point." 

The university has temporarily abandoned a letter grade system and has called on professors to cancel final exams this spring in light of heightened concerns around the spread of COVID-19.

Classes were suspended March 13 and course instruction was moved online. 

At the same time, in-person exams were cancelled, following a directive from the province.


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