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University reinstates employees’ vacation days

USF reissued three vacation days to employees after a union arbitrator ruled last week that the University violated a union contract when it forced mandatory leave in December for certain employees.

In an attempt to cut costs, the University declared a seven-day “Winter Break” in December so buildings could be shut down. Faculty union members and employees were told they would have to use three days paid vacation for the break.

The faculty union filed a grievance last month, with the arbitrator ruling in its favor.

USF will reinstate the paid vacation days to the estimated 600 union members, who are on 12-month contracts.

It will also do so for an estimated 4,500 employees who were affected, USF spokesman Michael Hoad said.

USF provost Ralph Wilcox e-mailed all University employees and faculty members on July 6 to explain the decision.

“Given the necessity to reduce financial obligations and balance the budget, the mandatory annual leave was considered a far better option for employees than the use of furloughs and/or layoffs imposed by other universities,” he said in the e-mail.

A furlough is a mandatory unpaid leave, which was not what the University imposed in December, Hoad said.

Instead of reducing costs for salaries like a furlough would, USF would have benefited from closing buildings because of maintenance while the faculty took vacation time, Hoad said.

The University also would have relieved a portion of long-term accrued leave, which is money earmarked in USF’s budget that would be owed to employees.

“The accrued leave is very large because people keep big balances of vacation time and don’t use it up … when (faculty members) leave we have to cash it out,” Hoad said. “Eventually, that’s more cash out over time. If they quit or get another job or retire and have built up vacation, we have to pay them in cash, so generally you don’t want to have a whole lot of built up vacation.”

Wilcox said in the e-mail that the decision to credit the vacation time “is a fair and equitable action consistent with a recent arbitration decision between USF and the United Faculty of Florida.”

However, Wilcox also warned, “this decision will prompt us to explore alternative strategies to balance USF’s budget in the future.”

“Our actions last year, together with the infusion of federal budget stabilization funds, have made it possible for USF to enter the next academic year without the kind of programmatic and personnel cuts that others have endured,” Wilcox wrote. “Let us all hope that this remains the case.”

The University will receive $15.1 million in federal stimulus money, according to the
2009-10 fiscal year budget given to the Oracle. The stimulus increases USF’s budget by about $2.9 million.

“If it wasn’t for the federal stabilization funds, we’d be in serious trouble this year,” Hoad said. “It’s only one-time money, though. Two years from now we’ll be back in trouble again.”

Hoad said crediting vacation days won’t force layoffs anytime soon, but it could cause the University to consider a “hard furlough” in the future.

“The issue here is that the decision by the arbitrator doesn’t cost anything right now in terms of cash, but it builds up the accrued liability in everybody’s balances and it means we don’t have as much flexibility in the future,” he said.

The faculty union represents employees from all USF campuses. The president of USF’s faculty union is Sherman Dorn, who teaches in the College of Education.

Dorn said the University violated the contract with the union because the employees who are on 12-month contracts own the annual leave and can decide when to use it.

Dorn, who has been the union president for three years, also said he doesn’t think the arbitrator’s decision will have any significant financial effect on USF faculty and employees.

“The University – I suspect – would not consider breaking its contract with food vendors or anybody else. Yet they did that with the faculty,” he said. “I’m not sure why our faculty and staff should have to pay first if there are financial problems.”