04/01/2020 COVID-19 Staff Forum | Questions AND Answers

Of the questions asked during the COVID-19 Staff Forum on 4/1/2020, the following were responded to by members of the University Administration:

The provost email on Monday indicated that salary increases related to faculty promotions are excluded from the freeze. Can you elaborate on why staff are no longer eligible for promotions, but faculty continue to be eligible?

MARY OPPERMAN: I'll give that a shot. So, while we did-- well, we did basically exempt most salary changes, there is a step agreement for most promotions, from assistant, to tenured, from associate, to full. Those are the opportunities in line with the academic ladder. And so for now, it really is important that we continue those, because they are longstanding understandings as people move through the ladder. It's quite different than the way we do changes in pay and promotion for staff, which is much more episodic and less structural.

Given that normal parking enforcement besides handicapped spots and fire lanes are not currently being enforced, can the University suspend payroll deductions for employee parking passes until the work from home orders are lifted? While the transportation office currently allows for users to mail back their passes to stop payroll deductions, it seems like an unnecessary burden on both staff and transportation employees to process on a case by case, rather than a blanket suspension.

RICK BURGESS: This is Rick. I'll take that one. You know, I will be frank that we've had higher priority issues to deal with, just in terms of getting to where we are. With the duration of this remote work, things seeming to stretch out. We're going to have to pick this up. So, I'm happy to take a look at it. I don't know what the answer is right now. We have part of the process; the whole payroll piece gets done with others. But we'll take a look at this thing and figure out something that works. I agree that it doesn't make sense to continue to pay for something that we're not even using because you're sitting at home, and this applies to pretty much everybody that's got a paid parking permit. So we'll take a look at this one.

How much in savings have been realized over the past three weeks in reduction of utilities, demand, and steam load shed? Is there any thinking around moving to a four-day work week in the fall to retain a portion of these cost savings?

RICK BURGESS: I'll hop on that now. And it's about 30% in terms of usage. It's kind of complicated to do it in terms of dollar figures, and I'm not going to try to do public math on that one. But about 30% so far, and I think we could actually realize a little bit more if we do some more of the fume hood hibernations, which, you know, I don't initiate those. Those are initiated out of the units. Moving to a four day workweek, you know, you start to get into space use constraints, and competition-- you know, there are some that I've heard say in jest, you know, that nobody wants to have classes except Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. You know, so we would have a three-day workweek. I'm not in charge of that. I'm trying to keep the facilities that we got, and that really goes from-- the academic mission is where we start, and then we figure out what we need to do to support that.

MARY OPPERMAN: So let me jump in here, Rick. So I'm going to take what I think is the question behind the question, which is, how are we thinking differently about the efficient use of energy and space. And I do think we're learning some things about remote work that we may be able to leverage as we move back into full operations. But keep in mind that as we do that, there are certain things we do that are actually 24/7. When the students are with us, they're here all the time. And we have research that runs all the time. So I think this experience has taught us that we can think differently about how we operate, and that may well include more conversation about alternative or remote work. But as is the case for absolutely every organization that does this, we do it consistent with our commitment to our core mission.

What is the likelihood that we're going to see staff cuts and lost jobs due to this?

MARY OPPERMAN: Yep. I understand that question, and so I'm going to-- I'll try to do a better job of saying what we know. What we know is that we're working very hard right now to address what we believe will be the shortfalls. We don't know how long this will last. We don't know what the impact of the virus will be on our long-term financial situation. So I appreciate the question, but it would be irresponsible of anybody to tell you with certainty about what impact this may have on jobs. What I can say is what the executive vice president said. We are all working very, very hard in our commitment to our workforce. You all can participate in that by helping us look at spend and suggesting, through your managers, ways to do things more efficiently. And that is an honest answer for where we are today. And we'll continue to share information as we have it. That's the best I can do, and the question keeps coming up, because I think people want an absolute answer to the question, which is completely understandable. But I've made a promise to be as transparent as I can be to you. And that includes telling you what we know today, even if it isn't the answer you are hoping for.

Will LTIP rates change for fiscal year '21, or will there be a university-wide reduction in fiscal year '21 budgets?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: I can try that one. So we went to the board of trustees in January for endowment payout rates, which is what I think that they're asking about. And we have been paying out more than we should. And so we had a plan to continue to reduce the payout over the next several years down to approximately a 5% payout. So that has already been approved, and units should mainly be aware of it. What the implications are of the investment portfolio where all our modeling for payout is at a 6 and 1/2% positive return, right now, we're looking at a potential 8 and 1/2% negative return for this next year. So there will be an impact going forward. Right now, we're thinking it might be-- we calculate on a seven-year average, so it will take a couple years before we actually see the reduction in the payout piece. And yes, there will be budget adjustments. We're trying to figure that out now.

Another question I believe that you would be appropriate to answer. Could you kindly share the priority list for recouping revenue? What avenues are top priority? Where do staff roles fall in this metric?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: So I'm not sure I understand the question of recouping revenues. So, you know, we have our enrollment. And as soon as NCRE is built, we'll be able to add more students. And so that'll increase our tuition revenue. Financial aid is an expense that will grow depending on the economy. And then federal appropriations, research dollars, gifts. As soon as we're able to go back out and try to get as much as we can, we will be trying to maintain our revenue sources.

This feels a lot like, if not worse, than the recession of 2008. Is there talk of an early retirement incentive as there was in 2009?

MARY OPPERMAN: So I'll take that one. There are some differences. It does feel that way, I think, as individuals, as we look at this, but there are differences. One of the differences that we are trying to employ is, we're trying to make our changes as soon as possible. So that's why the Monday letter was so important. As it relates to early retirement incentives or other incentives, we're not taking anything off the table. But I have to tell you, those programs are very expensive. And so when we look at a precipitous drop in revenue, we need to calculate and balance the cost of something that we would do with the other pressures that we have on us. So we're not saying no and we're not advancing it as a yes. Right now, we have everything in the toolkit, and we're weighing the pros and cons of all of them.

If student enrollment is likely to decline, then why not reduce financial aid rather than increasing it by another $30 million?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: So one of the core principles of Cornell University is need-blind admission. So we don't know what the financial need is. If we wanted to reduce financial aid, the only way we could do that is look at people's ability to pay as they are applying and accept the people that can pay. And that just goes against one of the principles that we don't want to change at this point in time.

All of our funds are from grants, which will expire within the next two years. How do we reconcile reduced spending with funds that will be lost if not spent?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: My recommendation is to spend your grant funds first, and then your general-- as long as they're legitimate expenses that can go against the grants. We want all restricted funds dollars spent first, so that it frees up unrestricted dollars that can help with the university budget problem.

What advice would you give to staff members who have been deemed essential who have compromised immune systems? Once their HAP time has run out, are there any additional resources or any additional assistance staff members can access?

MARY OPPERMAN: So thanks for asking the question. If you are in a situation where you are in a medically compromised situation and you and your doctor do not feel that you should be working, there are programs to help you. Please contact the medical leaves administration area.

Several units have discussed mental health and the need for Nature RX. There seems to be a collective thought that getting outside is important. With the increased traffic at the gardens around campus, how are we addressing visitor safety?

JOEL MALINA: Well, I could address that, because we've made clear in as many of our conversations, I first want to echo the basic observation that Mary touched on earlier, which is absolutely, we want everyone to get outside. It's critical for wellness. I went out for a walk earlier today, and it made a big difference. Certainly, with regard to the botanic gardens, with regard to a lot of our wonderful areas for recreation and wellness around us, it's really just incumbent on individuals to practice those six feet separations. We have all experienced individuals that we encounter who aren't. But we, as individuals, have that opportunity to make a detour, making sure we look both ways if we're crossing streets at the time. But it really comes down to our greatest tool to get us back to normalcy as soon as possible, which is to enable the progression of the virus to happen as swiftly as possible, with an eye toward flattening that curve. We try to emphasize that in all of our communications.

It was helpful to know some of the thinking around summer planning, given the recent mention of July 12 as the earliest on-campus classes. I know we don't know specifics of fall, but can you share your thoughts of what is being discussed for potential fall implications?

MARY OPPERMAN: So I'll start, and maybe Joel and others can jump in. One of the-- the deans are meeting with the pros on a regular basis to do contingency planning for the academic enterprise. And I think that the person who asked the question acknowledges, we just don't know. And so we don't want to not do planning and be caught off guard. On the other hand, I think we're trying to weigh multiple factors as we do those contingency plans. So the deans and the provost team are actively looking at ways we might move forward if this summer comes and we're still not in a position where we can offer things on campus. Joel, did you want to add?

JOEL MALINA: No, that's exactly what I would have touched on, Mary. Thank you.

What do you know about the current confirmed cases of COVID in Tompkins County? Where are the positive cases located? How many of the current confirmed cases are part of the Cornell community, students, faculty, staff?

JOEL MALINA: I can take that. But obviously deferring to Anne and Frank. The Tompkins County Health Department has a website where they keep track of the county-wide confirmed cases. We have, as part of that landing page on our COVID-19 website toward the bottom, we are keeping a tally of Ithaca campus faculty, students, and staff by number that have tested positive. Recognizing that this is not always an exact science, our goal is to try to be as transparent as possible with the information that we have access to. I do need to underscore, there are significant and really critical privacy concerns at play. As a result, we are not in a position to be communicating specifics in terms of who, what, where, or when. But we do want to be sure the community is able to see the progression. I don't know, Anne, if there's more you would add.

ANNE JONES: Yeah. Really to echo that and emphasize the transparency on both of those websites, and especially on Tompkins County Health Department, there is a grid, and I'm looking at it right now, a grid that has the following factors. Total number of people tested for COVID-19, of those, how many are pending, how many are positive, how many have been coming back negative, and then how many people have recovered. As well as a count of how many people who are hospitalized. And so those are important numbers. To date, and what's being reported on the website now, the number of positive cases in Tompkins County is 76. And so that website is actually where we are getting that information. And that is being placed on there transparently for the community.

Are the current jobs posted on Workday still moving forward, or are they also being frozen?

MARY OPPERMAN: Yep. So we've asked each unit, college and unit, to look at the positions that they have posted and to take down those that they feel temporarily can delay, or they can reassign the work to someone else. And so those are all being looked at, and most of them, actually, are coming down. So there are a few positions that there's been an agreement need to continue. But for the most part, they're being taken down. At last count, I think something like 75% or 80% of them had been pulled down.

Now that provost or the executive vice president approval for discretionary spending is required to ensure consistency, what is the preferred submission method to obtain approval? Is there a dollar threshold for those purchases requiring approval?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: So Bill Sibert, the university controller, is meeting with all of the college business officers and administrative finance group on Monday. And they're going to work through our process, so more information will be coming out on that.

Follow up to the faculty promotion raise question. Could faculty voluntarily give up a raise for the time being to help out with costs while obtaining appropriate promotions? Is that something that could be asked of faculty, considering this issue?

MARY OPPERMAN: So everyone has given-- if you look at the Monday letter, you'll see that we have-- some individuals have already voluntarily reduced their salaries for six months. And we've made that option open to anyone who would like to do so, and that includes any faculty as well. So that's an open invitation to anyone who would like to do that to help us with our operating cost issues.

There are concerns and stress happening around our ability to be productive while dealing with the reality of our current situation. What would you say to folks who are struggling to balance deadlines and mental health?

MARY OPPERMAN: Yeah, so thanks for asking that question. I think there's actually a lot that goes into that. So some of it is as simple but complicated as, all of a sudden, you're home, and you don't have the normal way that you get things done, and you're trying to figure out how to do things in a different way. And we did a panel about that, and we'll do some more follow-up. There are great resources, by the way, about this on the HR website. But the other thing that was recognized there, and I just want to say, we're thinking about it, as well as, you know, people who have children, the day care centers are, for the most part, closed. The schools are closed. They're feeling a great deal of pressure within their-- to balance a whole lot of things that are kind right in front of them now, and we know that. So what I would say is, use good-- my good practical advice is, talk to your supervisor about when you can get your work done. Make sure you understand the deliverables that are in front of you. Be open and honest about the struggles that you have in terms of what's happening in your home and develop a go forward plan that's agreeable to you and your supervisor.

Which jobs are going to be continued to be recruited for? Are the provost searches for college deans continuing?

MARY OPPERMAN: So there are certain jobs that we will continue. So, for example, a great example is, if we need a dean, we need to complete that dean search. There are other jobs that are quite unique in their skill sets, so we can't obviously move somebody into the role, and those will continue as well. There's no single pathway to answer this question. We're trying to go position by position and have a conversation about all of them and figure out which ones to move forward. I will say in this regard, and I do want to just go back to my acknowledgment that when you ask an absolute question and I don't give you an absolute answer, I want to acknowledge it that doesn't feel satisfying. But I also feel that I have a great deal of regard for all of you and your ability to manage what can sometimes feel like less than concrete answers. And so I'm going to give you the honest answers that I have them, even if they're not in an absolute form. So we're going through each job. We're trying to figure out which ones absolutely have to continue. We're talking about whether there's other ways to continue them. But there's no single pathway to say, this type of job will be filled and this type of job won't be. I sat in on a deans meeting on Monday. And every dean, every vice president, and every vice provost on this campus is really being thoughtful about how to take this guidance and do their part in figuring out how we can capture some savings in these early days.

As we identify departmental funds that will no longer be used for fiscal year '20, e.g. student recognition events, what is the best way to let the university know how much money we can roll back into the larger university budget?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: Well, my suggestion would be to talk to the University Budget Office, Paul Streeter's office. They will happily take any call that somebody is returning some funds to help with the university budget.

The university has a sizable endowment, and this is an international emergency. Can't the shortfall be covered by dipping into the endowment, considering the unprecedented nature of the situation?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: So the endowment is established based on gifts from donors. And the donors are under the understanding that we will never use their funds for anything else. It would require board approval. It could be an option, but it should be a very last option, because that means we have not been able to figure out the problem solving for ourselves, and that would just be a stopgap. And the more you take out of the endowment, the longer the pain will be for the university, because so many of our funds-- so many of our programs are funded from the endowment, including financial aid.

Regarding budget, specifically event expenses, will schools be required to reduce or pare back the spend on major events, like orientation, first year family weekend, et cetera? Some of these events could produce a significant cost savings.

MARY OPPERMAN: Yes. So each-- I'm going to actually have Ryan talk about the Cornell-- the student-specific ones. But each of the colleges and units are looking at exactly that, events that we've always held, can we-- are we still holding them? If we are holding them, can we hold them in a different way?

RYAN LOMBARDI: And I'll just jump in there. We will be certainly looking at these kinds of university-wide student type events, like Orientation, like Family Weekend that were mentioned. We will be taking a very close look at those and doing everything we can to reduce or eliminate a lot of the spend that does happen there. Obviously, we need to transition our new students on to campus somehow. But I think this will require us all to take a really close look and figure out how we can realize some savings to support the institution, and we will be doing that.

How can staff help to support students who are not on campus, with the broad support and resources available to them at home? Are there new digital opportunities to volunteer, for those of us who may not work in Student Services, but may wish to help?

RYAN LOMBARDI: Thanks for that question. I appreciate everyone's willingness to help and support our students from afar as well as those that are here. Our team has put together some virtual programming resource tips. I can get that link out and distributed in one of our subsequent messages. And so to the extent that your work or your unit might be able to offer something to our student population virtually, that would be wonderful. And I would encourage folks to think very creatively and work with the teams that surround you-- your supervisors, your colleagues-- to think about how you might translate the work you do into supporting students at a distance if it is students supporting in student service type work. So please continue to do that. We put a good web site out on the Dean of Students Office page with some tips. We are going to start collecting information and sharing that as much as possible. Some of the more obvious places have started this, and I can't thank them enough. I know that our fitness center did a virtual some kind of fitness thing. I don't, unfortunately, do a lot of fitness, but did something online, and had hundreds of participants with a fitness instructor in their living room leading a session online. So there's great ways that we can engage our students near and far.