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Five LI universities cut 300 staffers over shortfall despite federal stimulus money

Tim Regan said he was fired after 15

Tim Regan said he was fired after 15 years as an audiovisual technician at LIU Post in Brookville. Credit: Tim Regan

Five Long Island higher education institutions laid off or furloughed almost 300 employees combined as a strategy to mitigate budget shortfalls set off by the coronavirus pandemic, despite millions in funding trickling in from the federal stimulus package.

The trend is likely to continue into the fall as universities face an unprecedented financial crisis, education experts and college leaders said.

When the coronavirus began to seize New York in March, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered colleges to move all in-person classes online. Colleges also asked students to move out of residence halls in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

The mandate for the remainder of the spring semester forced colleges to incur unanticipated expenditures to transition online while experiencing revenue loss through prorated housing refunds.

“This is a financial perfect storm hitting higher education institutions,” said Kevin R. McClure, an expert in higher education finance and professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Newsday last week contacted 14 public and private Long Island universities to determine if they had laid off employees during the pandemic while also seeking federal stimulus funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.

The $2 trillion relief bill includes language stipulating that universities receiving funds “shall to the greatest extent practicable continue to pay its employees and contractors during the period of any disruptions or closures related to coronavirus.” The statute does not clarify, and federal guidance was not issued, on how universities should interpret “the greatest extent possible.”

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Despite those conditions, Long Island University, with campuses in Brookville and Brooklyn, Adelphi University in Garden City, Five Towns College in Dix Hills, Hofstra University in Hempstead and New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury — all private colleges — each laid off or temporarily furloughed workers since the crisis began. All but one of the 14 universities received CARES Act funds; the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy rejected $569,000 in funds.

“For universities doing layoffs and furloughs, the amount that they’re getting from the CARES Act is just not nearly enough to cover their losses, and in many cases it’s not even enough to cover housing refunds,” McClure said.

Eight other universities, including the five State University of New York public colleges, said they had issued no layoffs, while Touro Law Center declined to discuss personnel issues.

LIU received more than $7 million in federal funds meant to prop up colleges and support students through the pandemic, while Hofstra received $6.2 million, NYIT got $4.3 million and Adelphi got $5.2 million, records show. The bill requires universities to spend half its funding for emergency financial aid and grants to students.

Nearly all other Long Island universities received stimulus funds, ranging from a low of $860,000 at Five Towns College to a high of $19.7 million at Stony Brook University.

LIU last week fired 51 members of Local 153, which includes secretaries, library and mail clerks and audiovisual technicians, and extended “temporary” furloughs for another 33 members, according to John Edmonds, assistant business manager for the union.

The layoffs include 40 employees at LIU Post in Brookville and 44 at the Brooklyn campus, union officials said.

In total, 84 of the union's 98 members, making an average of $50,000 to $55,000 per year, lost their jobs and health insurance, officials said. Local 153 has filed a complaint against LIU with the National Labor Relations Board calling for their members’ jobs to be restored.

“It’s outrageous that they would fire many of these workers while getting a $7 million payout,” said John Turchiano, a union spokesman.

LIU did not respond to requests for comment.

Eight members of the school's Professional Administrators Association, which includes library staff, financial aid and academic counselors and art, theater and music staffers, also were terminated, said Dan Heller, a union representative.

Janine Celauro of Wantagh, a secretary for LIU's campus radio station who was laid off after nearly 12 years, said it was "unconscionable" that the university left her without health insurance during a global health crisis.

"There was absolutely no reason for these layoffs," Celauro said. "They got the federal money. Tuition has already been paid. So where did the money go? It's inhumane."

Tim Regan of Levittown, who was fired after 15 years as an LIU audiovisual technician, said there had been a pattern of steep workforce cuts since Kimberly Cline became university president in 2013.

"She is looking at this as an opportunity to bust the union," he said of Cline, who locked out faculty from the Brooklyn campus in 2016 amid a contract dispute. "Cline is striking while the iron is hot to try and get rid of people that have been there for a long time."

Cline earned more than $1.1 million in total compensation from LIU, while 12 other administrators took in more than $300,000, according to the university’s 2017 tax filing.

Meanwhile, overall enrollment has dropped nearly 28%, from 20,261 students in 2012 to 14,608 in 2018, according to data from the state Education Department.

Students at LIU also have filed a federal lawsuit calling for the university to refund a portion of their tuition and housing costs for the spring semester.

Many other local universities, including Hofstra, Adelphi, and SUNY Stony Brook, Westbury and Farmingdale, said they will reimburse at least a portion of the fees paid by students for housing, meals, transportation and athletics.

Five Towns hopes money from the CARES Act will offset the revenue loss from housing refunds, said college president David Cohen. The college furloughed about 30 staff workers and two adjunct faculty members, Cohen said.

“It’s our hope that we’ll be able to recall everybody and get back to work when the situation presents itself,” Cohen said. “I think that if we can be back in operation for September, the aid from the stimulus [package] could be enough.”

If campuses are forced to continue remote learning, however, more colleges likely will need to take drastic measures and cut academic programs, McClure said.

“It’s a trend that is likely going to continue and will likely increase in terms of the number of institutions nationwide that are turning to that as a strategy,” he said.

Adelphi laid off 160 part-time hourly staffers as of May 1, according to college spokesman Todd Wilson. The university declined to say what positions were eliminated, but said the cuts did not affect full-time positions.

"No further layoffs have been announced at this time. However, the university remains proactive in planning for all anticipated challenges," said Wilson, adding that it's unclear if the cuts will be permanent.

The university, Wilson said, provided a two-week stipend to the laid-off employees, who were not eligible for health insurance because of their part-time status.

Adelphi also seeks voluntary salary reductions from its faculty, according to a letter by the university's chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

Hofstra University officials said "a small number" of employees had been furloughed “for a short period of time.” They declined to get specific but said the furloughed employees would keep their benefits during that time. 

NYIT said "certain staff" had been temporarily furloughed with full health benefits. The school did not quantify how many employees or what titles were affected.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting colleges and universities of all sizes, including New York Institute of Technology," said university spokeswoman Elizabeth Roseman. "Enrollments for the fall will be impacted, with international student enrollment certainly down and domestic student enrollment uncertain."

Stony Brook said its finances have been significantly impacted by the pandemic, including student reimbursements, future enrollment revenue and research support. The stimulus funds, officials said, will not be enough to offset an anticipated $50 million in COVID-related expenses.

"SUNY leadership has asked its colleges and universities to prepare for sizable cuts in state aid," Stony Brook spokeswoman Emily Cappiello said. "We are hopeful that there will be additional federal stimulus funding that will help to prevent the need to take severe measures to address these fiscal issues."

SUNY spokeswoman Holly Liapis said state-run universities needed another infusion of cash "to close a $13 billion revenue shortfall."

Liapis said "additional federal support has not materialized, and we join in calling on the federal government to take quick action to support the state and avoid the potential deep cuts to our academic programs, campuses and our students."

Federal stimulus funding

Long Island universities receiving CARES Act funds:

  • Stony Brook University: $19.7 million
  • Suffolk County Community College: $13.1 million
  • Nassau Community College: $12 million
  • Touro Law Center: $7.5 million
  • Long Island University: $7 million
  • Hofstra University: $6.2 million
  • Farmingdale State College $6.1 million
  • SUNY College at Old Westbury: $5.5 million
  • Adelphi University: $5.2 million
  • New York Institute of Technology: $4.3 million
  • Saint Joseph's College: $3.7 million
  • Molloy College: $2.6 million
  • Five Towns College: $860,000
  • Merchant Marine Academy: Rejected $569,000 in funds

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

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