Hundreds of NEIU students to lose jobs as all employees take required furlough days

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Hundreds of student employees at Northeastern Illinois University will lose their jobs and nearly all staff will be required to take five furlough days later this month, the latest fallout from the state’s protracted budget impasse.

Northeastern will shut down the week of March 20, during spring break, as about 1,100 employees take five unpaid days off. All university and instructional services, including computer labs, the writing center and the library, will be closed. Only police and engineers will be on campus as needed, officials said.

Illinois colleges and universities have increasingly struggled during the state’s nearly 20-month budget stalemate. Illinois has operated without a full budget since July 2015, leaving Northeastern and all the public campuses without regular funding. NEIU, on the city’s North Side, serves about 10,000 students.

“This is another extrapolation of the bind that state universities are being put in as a result of the budget impasse,” NEIU interim president Richard Helldobler said in a recent interview. “The state is just putting us in an untenable position. It’s time for the state to get their heads around the fact that we need a budget in order to support public higher education in the state.”

About 300 student workers will be out of jobs in accordance with a new state rule that requires public universities to eliminate state-funded student and temporary positions before implementing a furlough program. The rule allows universities to keep student positions that relate to health and public safety, as well as those that are part of a student’s financial aid package or academic credit.

The State Universities Civil Service System established the new rule this year, and NEIU is the first university affected by it.

Jeff Brownfield, the system’s executive director, said that while eliminating student jobs is not desirable, it is a strategy to help prevent schools from cutting permanent employees. The agency has long had a rule that student employment cannot take the place of civil service jobs, Brownfield said.

“We’re not very happy that we have to have this rule,” Brownfield said. “This is not a good situation for faculty, staff or students. It was one of those rules that came about out of desperation. We have all the sympathy in the world for our campus administrators, for our students, our staff, our faculty. At one level, this is the least onerous of really bad choices. There are no good choices.”

But NEIU leaders are criticizing the change, saying it is unfair to students who rely on the jobs to pay for school and to others who depend on their classmates for things like tutoring. Students have jobs throughout the campus, including at the recreational center, student union and writing center, services used by both students and the general public.

“It’s just unthinkable to me that we would do this to students,” Helldobler said. “The quality of the educational experience at Northeastern will be diminished because of this rule and the services that we can really extend to taxpayers will also be impacted as a result of this rule.”

The furlough program – which will mean a one-week salary cut for nearly all employees — is another sign of the escalating crisis due to the state’s historic budget stalemate.

Republican Governor Bruce Rauner and a Democratic-controlled legislature have been unable to agree on a budget, leaving all the public universities without regular funding. They have approved stopgap budgets that provided far less funding than the universities had expected to receive, and no funding has been approved for 2017.

NEIU got $36.9 million from the state during fiscal year 2015, but only $30.2 million total during the 18-month period after that.

In response, NEIU, Chicago State and other universities have laid off hundreds of employees, cut travel and other expenses, delayed maintenance projects, and dipped into reserves.

Northeastern also implemented a furlough program last year that required employees to take one unpaid day off for each of six weeks, and university officials are warning that additional furlough days will be inevitable this year without “adequate state funding soon.”

“As hard as this is for folks to go through, I think it’s just a sign of how much worse things are going to be if it keeps going this way,” said David DeThorne, legal council for the civil service system.

NEIU spokesman Michael Hines said he was unable to provide an estimated cost savings from the furlough program.

“We’re confident that it will be enough to keep us afloat,” he said.

drhodes@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @rhodes_dawn

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March 3, 2017 at 08:54AM

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Hundreds of NEIU students to lose jobs as all employees take required furlough days

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