Questions AND Answers | EA Staff Feedback Forum #3: Open Forum

Of the questions asked during the Staff Feedback Forum on 7/9/2020, the following were responded to by members of the University Administration, both live answered and answered via the Q & A function within Zoom:

Why is the University only willing to take an additional approximately less than 0.2%, $15 million, from the endowment, but have taking up to 9% to 10% of employee pay through SIPS, CURP, and salary reductions that will not be repaid?
MARTHA POLLACK: Yeah, I mean, I can answer that. It's just kind of a follow-on to what I already said. So here's another way to think about it. As I said, we already pay out about 5% of the endowment. The state limit is 7%. You can't legally spend more than 7% of the endowment.
And when you look at the endowment, again, most of it is for particular purposes. If a donor has given money to support a particular center, that's what that money has to be spent for.
So as a way of trying to figure out what was an appropriate level, one thing you can do is you can look at what percent of the endowment is unrestricted. And that turns out to be about 15%, which is about a billion dollars. We're already spending 5% of that. The limit is 7%. So if you take that 2% gap, what you come up with is about $20 million. And what we felt comfortable doing and what the board felt comfortable doing-- and I should say, felt comfortable-- it is extraordinary to go to this level. This doesn't happen. Many of our peers don't do that-- was to use about 3/4 of that $20 million. And that gives you the $15 million.
But I do want to note that on top of that is the money that we said we're going to raise. I mean, it's really $25 million. Because we also said, instead of adding to the endowment this year, we're going to focus on the current use of money. So that's kind of roughly how we think about it. It's not the mechanics of how it works, but that helps give a number.
I don't know how to stress strongly enough, it is extraordinary for a board who is tasked with the long-term health of the university to approve this extra money. And I am extremely grateful to the board for their willingness to do this.

Is there a particular reason why faculty salaries/retirement contributions are not impacted? Unfortunately this feeds into the culture of the staff vs. faculty dynamic that exists on campus and affects the overall morale and values of staff.

JOEL MALINA: The CURP contribution freeze and salary reductions apply to both faculty and staff.

What recourse does Cornell have if students living on and off campus refuse testing, quarantine, mask-wearing, social distancing, and other COVID-related requirements?
MARTHA POLLACK: You guys want me to take that one too? So as I say, we have a series-- we're working very closely with Vice President Lombardi to implement a number of things we can do. Now, students are going to make mistakes. People make mistakes. If you don't have your mask, we're going to go up and challenge one another. We're going to try and create this culture of mutual responsibility. But we are also going to have sanctions of increasing severity if there is continued or egregious violation of health policies, up to and including having students being required to withdraw for the semester.
Most important is the testing. It is not optional for students to be tested. This will be mandatory. And if you don't do it you will be sanctioned.

Why is your confidence in good behavior so low for students living off-campus if classes are all online, and so high for students living on- and off-campus if some classes are in person? Can't you still do your aggressive public messaging campaign with off-campus students taking all online classes?

JOEL MALINA: We have more levers to influence behavior if we have in-person instruction. For instance, we can restrict access to a building for a student who has not been tested.

Does the testing apply to students living off campus? How do you plan to control out of control parties?

JOEL MALINA: Yes, testing would apply to all students whether they live on or off campus. Students will be required to sign a compact that will govern behavior, withch we will strictly enforce.

Are you able to guaranteed that, on July 1, 2021, employees will receive back their 7% in retirement contributions? And also can you assure us that the decision to take away from employee benefits was very well thought out and was an absolute last resort?

MARY OPPERMAN: I think I'll give it a try here, and start with this one. So I understand and appreciate the question, but I need to stop and say, I think any employer during this time would be unwise to use a word like "guarantee."
We have worked really hard to have science drive our decisions. But as we've seen over the last few weeks, this virus moves in ways that are difficult to anticipate. That said, we hope very much that the plan we have in place will take us through the semester and beyond. And as, you heard from the president, we have committed ourselves to not only reviewing this at the end of the 11 months, but to take a step back at six months, see how we're doing, and if we are doing better than we currently have planned and budgeted for, consider restoring all or some of these cuts.
No one-- no one-- wanted to do anything more than we absolutely had to. And so we used our guiding principles, as the president has said. And maintaining our staffing to the best extent possible was a driving factor in this.
So just in conclusion, we modeled all sorts of approaches. I'm starting to feel like our team could model almost anything. And we've talked about this before. Keep in mind that, of our operating costs, actually over 60% are in the cost of our most valuable resource, which is our people, our faculty and staff. And so when we look at how we bring ourselves close to an alignment, it is very difficult to find enough funds when the deficit is as big as we are projecting, other than to look at ways to reduce those costs.

And so I can guarantee you that we looked at any and all alternatives before we centered on this. And I do want to say one more thing. We listened to the feedback that we got from the Faculty Senate and the Employee Assembly when we came with our initial approach. And you can see the modifications that we made after that. So I don't know if anyone else wants to add to that.

Is it true that students are being asked to quarantine prior to traveling to Ithaca? Does a student completing their 14 day quarantine at home rather than once they arrive on campus comply with what Gov. Cuomo has required of anyone coming into NYS?

JOEL MALINA: Students are being asked to quarantine for 14 days prior to traveling to Ithaca. Re: the governor's executive order, we are working with our peers in the state and our trade association (CICU) to explore with the state alternative approaches to meet the goal without requiring returnign studetns from those states to quarantine for 14 days here in Ithaca.

The fiscal year '21 cost reduction slide indicates that $25 million will be saved from reductions in common support functions. When can staff expect to hear more about these reductions? Can you speak a little more about them?

JOANNE DESTEFANO: Happy to take that one. So I also saw one of the questions was, what are common support functions. And basically what they are, administrative functions that have both a central and college campus unit, processing or whatever.
So if you look at the cost reduction slide that President Pollack shared, and you look down the list of items, almost every item is a one-time savings for this year. And if you look at the hiring pause, it's $20 million. That equates to about 5% of our workforce. They're already out of the system. And we have, currently, the Voluntary Retirement Incentive applications coming in. We could conceivably see another 5% of the workforce leave as a result of that, on the voluntary retirement. That means we could be down 10%.
We cannot continue to operate the same way we have in the past with, potentially, 10% fewer people. So what we attempted to do was create these functional reviews in all of the administrative areas to run some scenarios. The scenarios have just recently been submitted. We'll be making decisions in the next several weeks of what scenarios we want to be implemented for each functional area.
It's likely that it's going to take through the end of August before there's real communication. But the goal is to strategically change the way we do business so that when the hiring pause is eliminated, we don't just add all of those staff back. We're looking for real, creative structural changes to the way we operate.
One of the questions and concerns, I know, is what about staff? Am I going to lose my job? We really think that there's so many vacant positions that if we can be creative, the job loss will be minimal. And just as our principles have been all along, we want to minimize the amount of job loss. There still may be some in the end. But the goal is to minimize as much as possible. Does anybody want to add to that?
MARY OPPERMAN: The only thing I think I'd like to add is just to remind folks-- I've said this before-- we have had reductions in the past. So when we went through the Great Recession, we eliminated over 800 positions, not only because we had a current problem but because the administrative cost structure had become difficult for us. Over time, we grew back all of those lines.
And some growth is to be expected. But when we have administrative operations where we haven't agreed on a framework, that growth is sometimes occurring in places where, upon reflection, we don't want it to grow. And so this is an attempt on our part to formalize the administrative structure so that we can manage our growth going forward. This is the healthiest way for us not just to get through this situation but to not find ourselves in this cycle where we grow, then there's the financial downturn and we have to respond. And that's very unsettling for all of you. And it's not the best way for these functions to operate. So the intention is to create best practices for ourselves that can create better services and also a clearer framework going forward.

Provost Kotlikoff spoke to the choice that faculty have in teaching in person or virtually, and referenced that many faculty members are in an age range that increases their susceptibility to the symptonms of and even potential death from COVID-19. What safety options are you offering the rest of the Cornell community that are also in the same situation as faculty, keeping in mind that many of them do not have the ability to do their work remotely?

MARY OPPERMAN: Yep. So thank you for that question. We are we do have a-- and it's in the workplace guidance-- we do have a process, if someone has a medical condition that they feel places them in a vulnerable category, for us to look at ways to support and accommodate them. And I would encourage people who feel that they're in that position to reach out to medical leaves and discuss what those options are.
We are trying as best we can to create accommodations that will allow people to continue to be fully productive in their roles. And also we're looking for creative ways to address issues that are not as simply accommodated. So we're doing the best we can. But I think the key element there is not every job can be done from home, but lots can. And we really do need people who can work effectively remotely to continue to do that until we are in a different place with this virus.
Martha, did you want to add--
MARTHA POLLACK: No. No, that was the one thing-- I want to emphasize there is a sense of, "I want to get back into the office. I should be back in the office." It is best for this community, if you are able to do your job at home, to work remotely. And if you're a supervisor, please, if there's any way that your employees can do their work remotely, please be supportive of that. Because that's the best thing for this community.

If we have to change strategy (e.g. switch to remote coursework because of an outbreak), what will be the impact for our international students on campus? Will they risk deportation? If time allows, could you speak to some of the steps taken to aggressively oppose the ICE order and protect our international student safety.

JOEL MALINA: We are aggressively opposing the ICE order for this very reason. Short answer is in the courts, Cornell is joining an amicus brief on the Harvard/MIT case. In Congress, we are aggressively working with our NY congressional delegation to pressure the administration to back off.

Are furloughs or layoffs still on the table to make up the fiscal year '21 budget deficit?

MARTHA POLLACK: Mary, do you want me to take it or you? I can take it.
MARY OPPERMAN: It has been our hope all along that there would be as few furloughs or layoffs, and if possible, none. As Mary said, it would be crazy for any employer to guarantee that there will be no furloughs or layoffs. I mean, we don't know what's going to happen with this disease. So far, the budget has been balanced with minimal furloughs and layoffs. And we believe that with this 5% exercise, that we can do that with open positions and with attrition, and possibly some reassignment. As it gets up more towards 10%, if we need more at the 10% level, we can still get most of the way there. But I can't guarantee that there will be none. But it has been one of our guiding principles all along to do everything we can to protect the jobs of our staff. We care about our staff. We didn't say, oh yeah, let's cut benefits. It's not what we wanted to do. We want to protect people to the fullest extent we can.
But I got to be honest, we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow with this disease.

There is a perception that the retirement contribution decrease that endowed employees experienced as a result of COVID-19 impacted their total compensation package much more severly than the salary wage decrease that contract college employees experienced, particularly for those earning lower amounts. I understand that the cuts need to be applied to endowed and contract employees in different ways. Would it be possible for you to speak to why the impact of these cuts need to vary as well?

MARY OPPERMAN: Yes, so thank you. I'll take this. And then when I get myself into trouble, Martha will step in and help.
MARTHA POLLACK: Joanne will. Joanne will. [CHUCKLES]
MARY OPPERMAN: So let me start with the question that we often get-- why is it that we didn't tier or change the approach to the reductions in the CURP account? And the simple answer to that is we have a plan design. And the plan design is based on a singular contribution.
And so it is not easy. And we have gotten this from all different angles. It is not actually possible within our plan framework to have people choose how much they want in, say, a pay cut versus a pension reduction.
So what we did is what we were able to do within our plan design. That said, let me address directly the question of why was there more taken from endowed versus contract. First of all, I can tell you I had a very busy email and lots of people feeling really comfortable sharing their strong opinions. And I appreciate that. They have come in on both sides of this.
So there are those who feel that the pay cuts were much more painful, and those who feel that the CURP cuts, because they are bigger, are much more painful. In the end, we balanced the reality of cutting somebody's take-home pay with the decision to forego CURP contributions. And we've looked for a total savings package that we felt was doable. And that's how we came to this balance, recognizing that there is not parity, but it depends on where you sit as to what you think that parity should be.

With regards to the "cannot have zero risk" statement from the slides, how do we weigh what level of hospitalizations and death to community members is allowable? I'd like to question the framing of statement that even more illness is likely without reopening, which seems to be centering Cornell student audiences, and erasing other county residents in the cost-benefit calculations.

MARTHA POLLACK: Yeah, I can take that. Look, I would like to say no deaths are allowable. I mean, we're not saying, oh, we'd open only if they're were this many deaths or lower. What we're saying is that if we are able to mandate testing, tracing, an quarantine, then to the best data we have, the best science we have, then the number of infections, and thus the number of hospitalizations, and thus, presumably, the number of deaths-- and deaths, we hope, will be extremely low, but I can't guarantee that-- will be less than if we can't mandate that.
Now, the model that we did isn't just for students, it's for the Cornell community. It's for faculty, staff, and students. But when there's more illness in the Cornell community, it just sort of follows that there'll be more illness in the larger Ithaca and Tompkins County community.
So it isn't that we're somehow saying, oh, we're going to put a bubble over Cornell, and as long as we can keep illness down there, we don't care what happens in the larger community. Quite the opposite. And that's why actually, like, within a day of releasing our plan, the Tompkins County Health Department actually posted a letter saying that they supported this plan, that again, the science is uncertain, there's a lot changing, but they agree that this is the best way to protect the county and not just our own population given what we know today.
But it is scary. I mean, I can't lie to you. It's scary. I'm not saying to you, oh, it's OK if only 40 people die. That's not how I feel at all. I'm terrified about people dying. But I'm terrified about people dying no matter what we do. And we're trying to find a path that minimizes that to the best science we understand.

Have there been steps taken/communications with the residents of the city of Ithaca regarding their concern for public and community health with the return of students? What role does Tompkins County, City of Ithaca, and Cayuga Heights have in all of this?

JOEL MALINA: We are developing this very idea. It will be an important component, for sure. We have been working closely with each of the municipalities, providing them with regular updates on our planning and will continue to partner/consult with them over the coming weeks.

Will the supported quarantine and hotel also be available for staff? Or just students who test positive?

MARTHA POLLACK: As of now, just students.

It can be argued that messaging and punitive measures have not been effective in getting Greek organizatinos to comply and behave safely, as evidenced by the recent death of a Greek student. Why do you expect this campaign to be more effective and successful?loughs or layoffs still on the table to make up the fiscal year '21 budget deficit?

MARTHA POLLACK: OK, so a couple of things-- and my mom used to say, I don't mean to sound like a broken record. I don't mean to sound like-- younger people don't know what a broken record is. But again, if students come back, and we're not open, and we can't mandate testing, they're going to have parties anyway. So at least if we're open we can go in and try and control that.
Now, I'm not naive. We're not going to control every single party. But our hope is, first of all, that students-- not all students, but there are students themselves who want to show leadership. This is a very different situation. Just like all of us have never faced this, students haven't either. And Vice President Lombardi is already working with student leaders across campus who are anxious to be-- I think he's calling them public health ambassadors, and to try to challenge each other.
Are we going to get project compliance? No way, absolutely not. But we're really hoping that we can get better compliance than we might have in the past because this is more serious and students recognize that. And again, that the being open and this rigorous testing will make a difference. If we see too much misbehavior, if we see infection rates growing, we're going to have to reassess and we're going to have to change the approach we're taking.

There's been a lot of gratitude expressed from staff members for the transparency, for the communication, anf for the direction from leadership. There's a lot of appreciation for senior leadership being available for these opportunities. 

Because so many have been working from home, will parking fees be reimbursed? Many of us have parking permits being paid for out of our bi-weekly pay but are not using them.

JOEL MALINA: Parking permits will be renewed on an opt-in basis this year - we will not auto-renew. You will receive notification and you can indicate you do not want your permit for the fall semester. You are currently not being charged for parking.

The existing remote work arrangements do not require a remote workplace agreement. This has allowed supervisors flexibilities with their teams and has been a great benefit. Will Cornell continue to allow remote work without a formal remote workplace agreement to continue? 

MARY OPPERMAN: So I think it's the question without a formal workplace agreement to continue. Right now our plan is to continue with the way that we're approaching remote work right now. But I will also say that we are beginning to look into more ongoing remote work strategies.
So I've seen people ask questions about costs and impacts. And we're working on all that right now. We have an implementation team that is looking into remote work and how to continue it. But for now we are not requiring the remote work agreements, because we don't know how long will it be in remote work. But it's all under consideration right now.
MARTHA POLLACK: And Mary, if I could just jump in for one second, you might remember that the last of those guiding principles was seeking new knowledge. And I think one of the things we are just learning so much about is where remote work works, where it doesn't. Maybe in the future-- people around the country are talking about hybrid models, where people work at home some days, and go back in. I think we're learning a huge amount that, in the long run, once we get this all behind us, will enable us to work in new ways that are better for the employees and the university.
MARY OPPERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. And I do want to just call out and thank a couple of faculty from ILR who are assisting us with this. Their research is in this space. So more to come. But it's actually, I think, a great opportunity for us going forward in the future, to think more broadly about the places in which people get work done and how they get work down.

Since the decision has been made to open the campus in fall 2020, do you know whent he hiring freeze will be lifted? 

MARY OPPERMAN: So I'll start, but Joanne may want to add in. Right now, the hiring freeze is on, and will stay on until we feel that we have a strategy going forward as to how we bring back positions. Just to go back to the original, a question we had a while back, what we know is that we just have so many hopes and dreams, and creative people, and people that want to do the very best in the area that they're in, is that, unmanaged, we tend to grow. And so what we've learned over the last couple of financial downturns is that when we do that, we grow without regulation. We find ourselves later in a position that we don't want to be in, which is having to make hard choices.
So until we have an agreed-upon position control strategy and until we know that the finances will permit it, our intention is to keep the salary freeze on. Joanne?
JOANNE DESTEFANO: Yeah, the only thing I would say is-- and I think we shared this at least the last time we had employee assembly-- is we also know that we are projecting about a $40 million to $50 million dollar deficit over the next couple of years. And if we live to our principles that we don't want to furlough or lay people off unless absolutely necessary, we're trying to do everything we possibly can to reframe and restructure our workforce at a smaller level so that we can get through the next couple of years without any significant hardships.
MARTHA POLLACK: And Mary, you misspoke and you didn't mean to. You were saying the hiring freeze, not the salary freeze. I just want to make sure people didn't--
MARY OPPERMAN: Yeah, the hiring freeze. Although right now the salary freeze is on as well. We'll look at both of those. And we'll probably look at them slightly differently, by the way. But yes, thank you very much, the hiring freeze.

I understand the necessity of cutting salaries and retirement contributions for the next year, but most of us are also incurring additional expenses working from home - furniture, equipment, increased utility bills. Smoe of us have been informed that we will be working remotely permanently even after the current situation clears. What measures have been considered to address these expenses?

MARY OPPERMAN: Yep, thank you. So that was by reference to the fact that we're looking at remote work right now, and how to make that something that's sustainable for those that will either stay fully or partially remote. I do need to say we've got to consider that within the overall framework of where we are financially. But we are looking at that right now, and trying to figure out the right calibration.

When will we receive news regarding the university's plans for the Statler Hotel? If parents and other guests are not allowed on campus, what will the univesity do for all the other freshmen parents who were counting on staying at the Statler for freshment orientation, especially in light of the fact that other hotels are fully committed for these dates?  

MARTHA POLLACK: I don't actually know that. Joel.
JOEL MALINA: Yeah, let me start. It's not a complete answer, but just to be clear, the plans for move-in will be very restricted, in terms of parents who are dropping kids off are not going to be allowed out of their cars. The opportunity is to disincentivize them from staying. They will be, depending on what states they come from, be subject to the governor's executive order around quarantining for two weeks. So again, we are not going to be able to control individual parent behavior, but we will do all we can to make those options attractive.
MARY OPPERMAN: And to the question about the staff, we know that the hotel is closed. And that has caused us to have to furlough a number of people. We are working right now with the school and the college to try to understand that situation. As you know, we are not allowing visitors on the campus right now. That's a safety issue. So we are aware of this, and we're and we're working on it right now.

How is the mental health of staff going to be addressed as many of us are told to maintain our remote work? I worry about many who are quite literally alone here in Ithaca, and how mental well-being will be negatively impacted by being required to isolate throughout the year, especially during the winter. Will staff have the opportunity to decide not to come to their offices? And if so, can we maintain some kind of human interaction?  

MARY OPPERMAN: Yep. So thank you for that. There's a couple of upcoming forums on this very issue. So we are looking at how to create a sense of community and a virtual or mixed environment. And we're looking for your input on that. So that will be coming up-- I'm sorry you don't have the date-- soon. And we also have one, I believe, on remote work, and how to create a sense of community through remote work.
So we know this is an issue. I will also say we've added to the faculty and staff assistance programs counselors. So we've added another counselor. And we're extremely aware of the stress that's caused by the situation that we're in. Honestly, whether you're on the campus or remote, this current situation bears little resemblance to anything any of us have gone through before.
And so we're aware that if you're alone and isolated that is particularly stressful. So we encourage FSAP, the use of our online ENI-- so that's a call-in-- and also your telemedicine opportunities, to go to see someone through telemedicine. If you need help, we have the services and resources available. They're up on the website. Or you can email me and I'll put you in touch with them.

Will staff and students be provided with a mechanism to report concerns about social distancing and mask use? Will CUPD be allowed to enforce the same?   

MARY OPPERMAN: Let me start there, and then perhaps defer to my colleagues. We are strongly emphasizing our collective and individual responsibilities to engage and have conversations with all of our community members about appropriate behaviors and the risks of failure to abide by them. The provost will be sending out a message as early as today with some very specific guidance to all of us, that if we see someone in a building that is not masked and should be, we want to encourage each of us to be able to go up and say-- go up with six feet distance and indicate, put your mask on. We want individuals to know that they should expect to be approached if they are in a building or if they're walking outside and not keeping that six-foot distance and being unmasked.
We're going to be adding another layer. We're going to be doing something we've really not done before, which is mount a pretty comprehensive public education campaign, again calling on individuals to not only be aware but to do the right thing and to call out those who are not. We need to be careful, especially in our current environment, about putting police in situations of having to enforce.
We certainly recognize that there will be interest, and many of us will likely get emails and texts saying, we just witnessed that, witnessed that. I would certainly volunteer my team and the community of the Office of Community Relations to be a funnel for that feedback. I mentioned that as well in a town hall forum we had last night for the general public. So we certainly want the feedback, but I don't think it's going to be as clear cut as, call CUPD, call the Ithaca Police Department.
MARTHA POLLACK: And I do think, to go back to this emphasis on science, the science, at this point, is overwhelming about the benefit-- for a while, we were just saying, it's just for everybody else. But even for you, the benefit of wearing a mask is really strong. And I think everyone, it just should be without question, you should wear a mask. It will reduce your risk and it will reduce the risk of the community as much as 65%, I've seen. So people just have to wear masks. You've got to do it. I do it.

In light of the pandemic financial implications we're currently experiencing, are certain benefits programs, namely the Employee Degree Program, or the Child Care Grant Program, and the ability for staff to take course impacted at all?  

MARY OPPERMAN: So just to go back, when I said we looked at lots of modeling, we looked at lots of modeling. now As it stands right now, those programs are continuing apace. And that is our hope and our plan. So assuming all continues to go in this direction, we don't have plans to change those now.

When does orientation start? We have been asked to participate but will need the dates. Thank you!  

JOEL MALINA: We have not yet finalized dates for orientation. We expect to have that finalized soon.