By SUSAN JONES
A hiring freeze for Pitt staff is official now, but in practice it’s not much different than the hiring slowdown that’s been happening over the past several weeks, according to David DeJong, vice chancellor for Human Resources.
For all COVID-19 related updates from the Office of Human Resources, check out this website.
The slowdown meant that unless there was immediate work for a new hire to be doing, supervisors were asked to push back the start date “until we're back up to normal; whatever that means,” DeJong said.
“Now the conversation is going to be a little bit different,” he said. “We really want to freeze hiring for all except the truly critical positions.”
Any exceptions would have to come from a supervisor’s vice chancellor or senior vice chancellor. DeJong said supervisors with open positions can reach out to Human Resources to possibly find current Pitt employees whose work can’t be done remotely to help out on a project.
This work sharing mode has already attracted a big group of volunteers to help Student Affairs reach out to graduating students who will be going into the job market this summer, he said.
At the April 15 Staff Council meeting, DeJong also said, “We are not focusing on involuntary layoffs at this time. I would never say never. But that is not our focus at this time. I think most staff are working as hard or harder than they ever have.”
While announcing the changes at the Staff Council meeting, DeJong addressed several scenarios that may allow exceptions. Asked whether students might be hired to finish an existing project and write a report to fulfill a grant requirement at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, he said “It may be” a problem, since the University doesn’t want students to return to campus yet. “If the pandemic response loosens, we probably will revisit that. If remote work is possible, that will be something we may be open to.”
Asked whether an existing contractor could be used to do work on a grant, DeJong said such a decision would likely be up to Pitt’s Institutional Review office.
Pitt is not alone in moving toward a hiring freeze. Harvard University, which has an endowment 10 times the size of Pitt’s ($40.9 billion vs. $4.3 billion), announced on April 14 that it would freeze salaries, forgo new hires, cancel discretionary spending, delay some capital projects, and cut pay for its top administrators, according to the Boston Globe.
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in an interview last week that Pitt’s losses related to the pandemic so far total around $40 million — half from rebates to students on room and board. (See related story).
More changes for staff
“I think it's an important message that we really want to be supporting the staff that are on the payroll right now,” DeJong said. “Everything we're talking about is designed to give staff maximum flexibility in dealing with these unusual circumstances.”
To do that, HR has made several recent changes, in addition to adding two weeks paid leave during the first week of the campus closure.
VOLUNTARY REDUCTION OF EFFORT
Starting May 1 and until further notice, staff members can choose to cut their work hours and effort from 100 percent to 50 percent in 10 percent increments, or can temporarily quit working entirely to take care of family or other personal or family needs. While they would see a pay cut to reflect that reduction, staff would maintain full-time benefits in other areas, including health care, progress toward retirement and education benefits.
This opportunity might be appealing to staff whose responsibilities include school-age children at home, so they can help them with remote learning through the end of the term, or family with health issues.
If employees choose to cut their workload to zero, they will still be responsible for paying their portion of the health insurance costs. And, of course, no money would be going into their retirement accounts.
Find more details on the Human Resources website.
LIFTING VACATION ACCRUAL CAP
Because most employees will find it difficult to take vacation time now and in the next couple months, the cap on accruing more vacation time has been lifted through Nov. 30.
For instance, if your current maximum is 75 hours and you already have built up that much time, you will continue to add hours at your current accrual rate until November. After that, no more time will be added, but you will have all the accrued time to use.
Personal days must still be used by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
TEMPORARY SICK DAY BANK
Staff members who have more than 45 days of accrued sick time will be allowed to make a one-time donation to a Temporary Voluntary Sick Day Bank, to help out other staff members who are in need of sick time to cover illness during the current crisis. Donations cannot reduce accrued days below the 45-day threshold.
This program opened on April 13, and DeJong said 77 people have already reached out to make a donation; of those, 63 qualified. He said donations from seven staff members have been processed, totaling 622 hours (nearly 83 days). “Quick math, if 63 people average what those guys averaged, that's 6,000 hours.”
So far, only one person has requested time from the sick day bank, but they didn’t meet the qualifications. Requesting employees must have five days or less of sick time already accrued and must have applied for FMLA and be on an approved leave of absence to qualify.
“The Pittsburgh region has been very lightly hit (with the coronavirus) and we gave those extra two weeks, so right now that seems to have been sufficient for folks,” DeJong said.
The idea of a sick day bank has been discussed during the Shaping the Workplace sessions and this situation allows for a trial run. “Right now, we're saying that it's temporary but the possibility of making it permanent is TBD (to be decided),” DeJong said. “We'll figure all that out when we get back to whatever normal looks like. But the hours that are donated will stay until they're spent down.”
SUSPENSION OF FLEXIBLE SPENDING ACCOUNTS
Employees now have the option to terminate Health Care, Dependent Care, Parking, and Mass Transit Flexible Spending Accounts, which may no longer be needed because of closures caused by the pandemic.
For instance, if the child-care facility you use is no longer open and you are caring for your child at home, you probably don’t need to save pre-tax money for dependent care.
Instructions on how to terminate those accounts can be found on the Office of Human Resources website.
Return to campus
At the Staff Council meeting, DeJong said Pitt is instituting a return-to-campus task force and smaller working committees focused on individual issues, such as re-opening Pitt’s child-care facility and the research labs that did not continue during the crisis.
Asked to envision the eventual return to campus, DeJong guessed at a gradual return, with provisions made for those who are still medically vulnerable because of pre-existing conditions to continue working remotely for all or part of the time.
In the meantime, he said, the University is trying to make sure all staff “are being fully paid and fully engaged.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 412-648-4294.
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