Budget cuts divide university

As Queen’s faces janitorial layoffs, students and employees feel the effects

17 Physical Plant Services employees were laid off in April 2014. Since then, there have been reductions to maintenance on campus.
17 Physical Plant Services employees were laid off in April 2014. Since then, there have been reductions to maintenance on campus.
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Queen’s custodial staff have continued to cope with layoffs as the University navigates a series of financial woes.

In April 2014, 17 Physical Plant Services (PPS) employees were laid off while six more employees had their hours nearly halved. The layoffs meant cleaning in certain areas was reduced, including graduate student offices and stairways.

A PPS employee, who requested anonymity, said PPS services have experienced a marked decline due to the cuts.

“I’ll put in this way: for this building to be taken care of  properly, we need three [employees]. Right now we have two. We don’t have enough people and you can tell in the winter.”

More employees have been hired and will be able to help with the situation, but it isn’t a catch-all — those new employees will also work less hours, he said.

“When you have less people working less hours, you just can’t do it all,” he said.

This “casualization”, where full-time employees are replaced with part-time employees, is a growing trend at Queen’s. Casual employees  work less hours aren’t subject to the union’s major benefits.

The process replaces full-time janitorial staff with casual employees: casual employees earn $12 an hour against the union-mandated $23.31 with added benefits. 

The University recently reached collective agreements with Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 229, Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA), and United Steel Workers (USW). CUPE 229 — which includes custodial staff — attained some concessions from the University, including a scale increase of one per cent across the board and another two 1.25 per cent increases over 2016 and 2017. 

Casualization, however, remains a source of contention. According to the PPS employee, the CUPE agreement did nothing to address concerns around the shrinking full-time staff.

“Most people were okay because they had wives and they worked too,” the PPS employee said. “This one guy worked here for two years. He was going to move into a bigger apartment, then his pay gets cut in half, [he] loses his benefits and he can’t afford it anymore.”

He added that he’s concerned for younger co-workers faced with the challenge. 

Vice Principal (Finance and Administration) Caroline Davis said the layoffs were made as a result of financial difficulties, including a $285 million pension plan solvency deficit.

“[Laying off employees] were not decisions the university made lightly, but they were necessary to address the financial reality we face,” Davis told The Journal via email.

She added that the changes implemented last year by the University reduced cleaning in certain areas, such as graduate student offices.

PPS director John Witjes also defended the cuts in an email to The Journal.

“Physical Plant Services and the university remain committed to maintaining a clean and safe environment for everyone on campus,” he wrote. “The changes were limited to areas with lower traffic, and PPS has monitored buildings closely over the past year and made adjustments as required.”

He pointed to the recent union agreements as a success for university-union relations after a year of union opposition. 

“Through bargaining between CUPE and the university, a new rate structure for cleaners was negotiated. This has provided an opportunity to create 17 new continuing cleaning positions,” Witjes wrote.

Witjes didn't state whether the new positions were part-time or full-time.

CUPE 229 declined to  comment. However, in an interview with The Journal last year, CUPE local 229 president Patrick Cummings criticized the University’s decision to make cuts.

“Basically [employees] make less money. They work odd hours,” he said. “They don’t get enough to support their families.”

The Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) could not speak to The Journal by deadline, but said they plan to make an announcement on the topic. 

The roots of last year’s layoffs can be found in the Queen’s Pension Plan (QPP), with the 2008 financial crisis ultimately to blame.

At the peak of the recession, the University lost assets to the tune of $99.2 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal year. Those losses weren’t formally recovered until 2014. 

To this day, low interest rates have continued to pile on and, as of August 2014, Queen’s has found itself holding a solvency deficit of $285 million for the QPP. A solvency deficit occurs when a plan’s assets are less than the money owed to members. 

The QPP officially owes $285 million more to future and current pensioners than it can afford. Queen’s has also guaranteed pensioners that their pay will never be reduced.  

The deficit recently went into stage two solvency — meaning the University promises to pay it off over 10 years. However, while Queen’s hasn’t lost any money for the past four years, those surplus are largely due to investments. 

Accountants call these one-time returns because investment earnings fluctuate yearly. Without the stock market, Queen’s would be posting deficits. The University is benefitting now, but it wasn’t so long ago that these investments lost more money than they earned.

Furthermore, to balance the books, Queen’s has to shell out roughly $20 million per year for the next 10 years. 

The college pension plan (CATT) has offered Queen’s and several other Canadian universities to join a jointly sponsored pension plan (JSPP). If Queen’s joins the JSPP, any payments are waived. Multi-employer pension plans are being seriously considered, if only to escape payment. 

There’s been a new push for a university-sector pension, as all but three Ontario universities have been hit with a pension deficit.

Caroline Davis has been a major proponent for the switch. In Queen’s press releases, Davis has emphasized that every dollar paid to the pension deficit is a dollar that could have been invested into the university. 

“Queen’s solvency deficit will mean millions of dollars in additional annual pension payments over the coming years. That is money that would otherwise be available to fund the university’s operations,” Davis said in a statement published in The Queen’s Gazette.

Although it’s a possible solution, JSPP requires the Ontario government’s go-ahead. The plan requires multiple employers to share pension responsibilities and government has yet to approve it.

“The university is focused on managing its resources carefully, in the face of a number of significant financial challenges,” Davis wrote in the Queen’s 2014-2015 Financial Statement. 

In the case of PPS, careful resource management has required a hard stance in cuts and layoffs.

In her email to The Journal, Davis said Queen's is facing a collection of financial challenges.

“Queen’s faces significant financial pressures, including static or declining government grants, constraints on tuition fees and a large pension solvency deficit. With these challenges, the university must carefully contain its costs.” 

Corrections

November 7, 2015
While PPS Director John Witjes didn't state whether the new janitorial positions were part-time or full-time in his email statement, he was not directly asked to confirm the hours for the positions. The article has been amended to clarify.

The Journal regrets the error.

November 7, 2015
A previous version of this article stated that Caroline Davis "said she urges caution about reckless spending". While she said the university must "carefully contain its costs", she did not mention "reckless spending". The article has been amended to correct the error.

The Journal regrets the error.

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