Being deemed a “non-essential” WMU employee is a gender issue, women’s caucus argues

The letter below was written on behalf of the women’s caucus of WMU’s College of Arts and Sciences in response to decisions made by WMU in recent weeks that have dramatically impacted many staff employees.

April 15, 2020

Dear Dean Korestky, Provost Bott, and other WMU leaders,

The College of Arts and Sciences Women’s Caucus exists to “promote an academic culture of inclusiveness at Western Michigan University in research, teaching, service and administrative work.” Because of that mission, we are writing to express concern about the impact of hours reductions announced at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly given our commitment to retaining women employees at WMU, the steering committee feels compelled to advocate for our colleagues who have been deemed non-essential or conditional essential. We are troubled by the economic impact of their loss of hours and by the way that the cuts invalidated their centrality to the operations of the University. The setback to employees’ leave balances and, in a number of cases, to paychecks is significant. And the harm to their morale is difficult to overstate, especially as these drastic measures arose at the beginning of what everyone predicts will be a protracted public health and economic crisis.

To our knowledge, WMU is taking a rare approach to the crisis by reducing staff hours in draconian ways. While the original and extra COVID-19 leave WMU provided (now at 160 hours) is offsetting the impact for some employees, we recognize that the majority of the most affected College of Arts and Science employees are the academic departments’ office coordinators, most of whom are women. We know that a number of these employees are the main wage-earners in their household and they rely on WMU for health care coverage for themselves, their partners, and their dependents. The message the cuts have sent is one of extreme insecurity. Understandably, they worry: when will the pay and benefits run out? How do we plan for the coming months, far less the near future, when our employer is so quick to sacrifice our security?

We are asking for your response to this crisis and the impact being felt both in financial terms and in terms of morale and well-being. We have read the President’s and other statements about the difficulty of the decision, the generosity of WMU’s COVID-19 leave, and the relief options available for employees in desperate situations. We recognize that the AAUP Solidarity Fund is attempting to address the financial hardship that has been created, and we appreciate the swiftness with which faculty set it up and are collecting and distributing relief funds. We also hear that administrators are making financial contributions to people in need, which is a generous personal reaction, but not an institutional solution. We remain disappointed that WMU leadership is willing to leave loyal and dedicated employees in the position of requiring private charity or state or federal relief. And we are dissatisfied with the responses that avoid sincere reckoning with the permanent damage done, apparently in pursuit of some kind of fiscal responsibility.

Because we are a body that advocates for women and gender equity at WMU, we are seeking more insight specifically into the gender, racial, or other discrepancies that are being produced, reproduced, and exacerbated by the administration’s decision to cut employees’ hours.

  1. How many WMU employees have been deemed fully non-essential and been granted no hours? What proportion of these employees are women? people of color? employees at the lowest end of WMU’s Staff Compensation System? What steps are being taken to avoid furthering gender, race, and class inequities at WMU?
  2. How many WMU employees have been deemed conditional non-essential and have received a reduction of hours? What proportion of these employees are women? people of color? employees at the lowest end of WMU’s Staff Compensation System? What steps are being taken to avoid furthering gender, race, and class inequities at WMU?
  3. How does WMU plan to repair the damage to employee morale caused by the hours reductions, and in particular, the message it sends to women and other disadvantaged groups about their work’s value to the institution?
  4. Will you agree to participate in a virtual meeting on the topic of “Ensuring Gender Equity During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” co-facilitated by the Women’s Caucus Steering Committee, inviting WMU constituents to express concerns and ask questions with reassurance that they will not be retaliated against for expressing frustration, anger, and skepticism about WMU’s handling of the situation?

We recognize that administrators are making decisions in the middle of very stressful, insecure times. And that is why it is absolutely imperative that the people with the most power, and frankly, the biggest salaries, in the institution should be prioritizing the well-being of those who are disadvantaged. Extracting savings for WMU operations at the expense of our least-compensated, non-unionized employees strikes us cruel and unnecessary.

We are proud to be connected with a college that has, with Dean Koretsky’s leadership and Dean Enyedi before her, a strong commitment to fairness for women and other underrepresented group. We appreciate how CAS leaders have engaged in numerous efforts to address patterns of inequity College- and University-wide, and we also have hope that our still relatively new Academic Affairs leadership with Provost Bott is equally committed to non-discrimination and justice. Please let us know, as ethical WMU leaders, how you will guide WMU as an institution to ensure that our colleagues’ lives and livelihoods are not made more precarious because of their choice to work here.

Respectfully,

Steering Committee of the Women’s Caucus

College of Arts and Sciences