On April 30, President Rose sent out an email to the Bowdoin community addressing the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the College. He assured the Bowdoin community that “a top priority is job preservation”—but which jobs, at what pay and for how long? Moreover, Rose’s characterization of “academic initiatives and building projects we had been planning” as relevant concerns—during this time of crisis—indicates that, in the months to come, the College may consider programming and construction alongside the human costs of this pandemic and economic recession.
This framing of priorities is skewed; it equates unnecessary luxuries with workers’ lives. With many colleges and universities across the country planning to implement austerity lay-offs under the guise of “compensating for lost revenue,” the disturbing implications of Rose’s language leave us, the Bowdoin Labor Alliance (BLA), no choice but to demand greater clarification and concrete commitments to Bowdoin’s staff that ensure financial security—for the remainder of this crisis.
For the College, this disaster presents an opportunity to reduce costs and place its burden on workers, rather than cutting unnecessary luxuries and administrative expenses. Indeed, “President, Finance and Administration” had control of over a nearly $2.66 million operations budget this year—nearly enough to keep the 163 workers in Housekeeping, Grounds and the many departments that make up Facilities Management and Security on full pay for three months. After June 30, our billion-dollar institution may well choose to layoff or furlough workers who are already struggling to get by on fast-food wages. This would reveal the extent to which the lives of workers are worth less than lavish new buildings and experimental virtual programming.
For the duration of the pandemic, Bowdoin must do the right thing and:
1) Allow workers to stay at home with regular pay.
2) Continue the time-and-a-half hazard pay option for workers who volunteer to come into work.
3) Commit to no layoffs or furloughs.
Right now, most Bowdoin staff members are staying at home and receiving regular paychecks, with an option to volunteer to come into work for time-and-a-half hazard pay. According to conversations with campus staff, this is the safest option for our community, and it still allows the College to keep its grounds and facilities in working order.
A decision to furlough campus staff would put workers at the mercy of a cumbersome and overburdened unemployment system. Due to the high number of people applying for unemployment, new applicants may have to wait weeks for their unemployment applications to be accepted and payments deposited. The application system itself is bureaucratic and inflexible to the unique realities, life experiences and circumstances of individual workers. Moreover, it is unclear if federal unemployment funding will persist, or if state unemployment funds will last for the remainder of this crisis.
Furthermore, staff members want to keep their jobs. As one housekeeper, who asked to remain anonymous, stated, “I would leave unemployment for the last resort. I think they should pay us. It’s Bowdoin College, and they have the money.” Another told us, “I wouldn’t even know how to file for unemployment. It would help if I had a computer and internet.” When asked what they thought about staying at home for regular pay with optional work for hazard pay, a worker from Facilities Management and Security said, “I and everyone else would absolutely prefer that. I would hate to have us all go back and maybe get sick for no reason whatsoever.”
Bowdoin College, a leading Maine employer and a valuable asset to the Brunswick community, should be more than able to provide its employees with much-needed security––beyond its self-imposed June 30 deadline. The approximate $8 million that Treasurer Matt Orlando expects the College to redirect to their COVID-19 response pales in comparison with other budget items that remain, which are irrelevant in the middle of a pandemic. The athletics department alone has an operations budget of nearly $2 million—game-day expenses for football games that Bowdoin won’t get to use, recruitment expenses for players who likely won’t get to play and practice equipment that won’t wear out in storage. The recently completed Roux Center cost $16.5 million; likely, pausing the construction of Mills Hall and other projects could free up the millions in anticipated costs to increase financial flexibility for the College.
Therefore, notwithstanding the over $1 billion endowment, the College appears to maintain significant financial flexibility. In Rose’s own words, the College has “the liquidity right now to help us weather this crisis.” The $6.8 million lost—91 percent of which was due to the warranted room and board refunds—does not offer sufficient financial justification to abandon vulnerable, low-income members of our community through unnecessary layoffs and furloughs. Bowdoin can—and should—protect its workers through the remainder of this pandemic and economic recession.
Yet, the true implications of abrupt workplace changes would be lost on administrators like Rose and Orlando, who take home nearly $500,000 and $300,000 annually from the College. One College worker explained this stark disparity directly: “If I was making Matt Orlando’s salary, I probably wouldn’t worry about it. But I don’t, not even close. Me and a lot of my co-workers live paycheck to paycheck.”
The College has asked students to come up with ‘creative solutions’ to their own financial and academic challenges. Similarly, the administration must find creative and unconventional solutions to protect workers who are foundational to our community. As one housekeeper told us, “this would show the community where Bowdoin College stands with their employees. And they have the money.”
HOW TO HELP:
Members of the Bowdoin Community, join the BLA in calling for the continuation past June 30 of 1) No lay-offs or furloughs, 2) Regular pay for workers staying home to protect their health and 3) The option of hazard pay for those who volunteer to work for the duration of this pandemic and economic recession. These demands are included in a petition, linked below, which we encourage you to sign and share. The petition also includes more information on how to contact Matt Orlando and the Budget Review Group. Please read, sign and share.
Diego Grossman and Ben Ray are members of the Class of 2020. Rene Cisneros is a member of the Class of 2023. They are members of the Bowdoin Labor Alliance.