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UWS custodians receive layoff notices

University of Wisconsin-Superior custodians and groundskeepers received layoff notices Christmas Eve. Their last day of work is Jan. 11, according to Carolyn Kaiser, AFSCME Council 24 Northwest field representative. Kaiser has been representing a...

UWS
A University of Wisconsin-Superior worker clears snow from the sidewalks on campus. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

University of Wisconsin-Superior custodians and groundskeepers received layoff notices Christmas Eve. Their last day of work is Jan. 11, according to Carolyn Kaiser, AFSCME Council 24 Northwest field representative. Kaiser has been representing about 100 blue collar and technical employees on the campus for the past decade, including the custodians.

"I have heard from some of them," she said. "It’s like a death in the family."

UWS Director of Marketing and Communications Lynne Williams confirmed that layoff notices had been sent. She said that it became clear the transition to Tennessee-based Services Solutions Company should take place before the start of the spring semester Jan. 20 to minimize impact on the students and campus community. UWS has contracted with the Northwest Wisconsin Concentrated Employment Program and will be meeting with staff in the next couple weeks to answer questions, assist with job searches, do resume review and building, go over interview skills and talk about unemployment benefits, according to Williams.

The move to outsource custodial and groundskeeping services is one of many cost-saving measures being implemented by the UWS campus to cover a budget hole caused by what administrators described as a "perfect storm" of declining enrollment, a tuition freeze and statewide funding reductions. The university must reduce expenses or raise revenue by $2 million within the next two years to prevent it from running in the red; an additional $2.5 million must be realized within five years.

It was initially estimated the custodial outsourcing would save the university $500,000 per year. Earlier this month, that figure was lowered to $350,000 annually. The university has also suspended one graduate major, 10 graduate program concentrations, two bachelor program concentrations and five minors. No new students will be accepted in those programs, but current students will be given time to complete them. Operation of the campus bookstore was also outsourced and services have been centralized. In all, $1.8 million in savings has been realized to date.

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"All of these steps that we’re going through, while difficult and controversial, they’re positioning the institution for success," Williams said on Dec. 19. "We have to go through some of these things to address our budget situation to really do this self-examination and in the long run it’s for providing a quality education for our students." The entire process has led to a lot of open, honest, difficult dialog on campus, she said.

"The conversations we’ve had, the awareness that the campus community has about our programs and services is much higher than it was a year ago," Williams said.

At-risk notices were sent to 27 custodians and groundskeepers in May. Through attrition, the number of employees has dwindled. The 18 who remain working on campus received their layoff notices Christmas Eve.

"The bottom line is they are not saving money," Kaiser said. Those jobs will still have to be done; snow must still be shoveled, spills cleaned. She said the incoming company may offer positions to the current employees, but that the pay is less and the hours are not guaranteed. The current custodians are known for their honesty, making sure laptops or items left by students get back to them.

"It’s very sad that we’ve come to this," Kaiser said, calling the letters a low blow at the worst time of the year.

The campus cuts affect more than the 18 remaining custodial employees. Four faculty positions are being eliminated due to program suspensions - two through retirement and resignation - and half a dozen other positions have been eliminated through the centralizing of services, according to Williams.

As the university seeks to cut or raise the remaining $200,000, winter commencement is being discussed. Canceling the ceremony would save an estimated $20,000 per year. Williams said about 100 graduating students take part in the ceremony while slightly less than 200 take part in the spring ceremony. If the commencement program is cut, there would be some type of celebration put in place to celebrate the students’ academic accomplishments. Williams also stressed that the University of Minnesota Duluth does not celebrate winter commencement. UWS held its first winter ceremony in December 2006.

Related Topics: SUPERIOR
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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