Facilities layoffs affect university atmosphere

Employees in every department of PSU’s facilities services saw their hours reduced or were laid off last week, as PSU struggled to cope with new budget restrictions, leaving only a handful of full-time employees to maintain the university grounds.

University budgets around the state are tight, and according to Zoe Birkle, painter at PSU and OPEU president, PSU was responsible for cutting 6 million dollars from its total budget.

This involves a 5 percent cut of support staff and 7 percent cut for management. Approximately 15 field positions will be eliminated to accommodate the new budget.

According to George Pernsteiner, PSU isn’t the only university needing to make cuts. OSU has already made some cuts, and University of Oregon is expected to announce their plans this week or next.

PSU made the decision to focus on academic funding, in order to keep up with projected growth in enrollment. According to Pernsteiner, the layoffs “should not have a dampening effect on expected growth.”

The problem, according to Birkle, is that the few facilities workers left are going to be saddled with more work than a larger crew used to handle.

“When I started in 1990,” Birkle explained, “we had four painters, four carpenters and 35 buildings to maintain.” Now, after the layoffs, there will be one painter and three carpenters to maintain more than 48 buildings, with the university planning to expand into newly acquired buildings next year, including the former location of the Art Institute of Portland and others.

Pernsteiner said that the plans for the newly acquired buildings will continue as previously stated, and that facilities remains committed to making those buildings available to students.

According to Birkle, one reason payroll was a major focus of the budget restructuring was the rapid increase in insurance costs. Insurance costs were expected to increase by 14.5 percent, but it now seems the increase is closer to 16 percent.

Birkle said the university is protecting the academic budget but will still need to cut nine-tenths of one percent of academic spending.

While academics are being sheltered by putting the major weight of the budget shortfall on facilities, students won’t go unaffected by the layoffs. “You learn better in an atmosphere were the building is maintained,” Birkle said.”

Pernsteiner agreed that students and faculty alike would miss the facilities personnel, saying, “We’re going to notice the difference in the grounds and building maintenance.”

The layoffs came as an abrupt shock to workers, “We were not prepared for this, no one warned us, asked our opinion, asked for suggestions,” Birkle said. Some of the effected workers had been on the job for more than 20 years.

Dave Johnson, who works at the PSU print shop was laid off after 23 years at PSU. According to Birkle, without Johnson the print shop is effectively out of commission for now.

Grounds supervisor Chris Hertel, also laid off last week, had been working at PSU for 26 years.

According to Birkle, with such a huge cut in the workforce, much of the work to maintain the campus grounds simply will not get done. “The flower beds are gone,” Birkle said.

More than likely there won’t be any painting done for a few years.

“They call me an emergency painter,” Birkle said. “I’ve always said there was no such thing as emergency painting.” Now, as the only painter, she’s had to readjust her thinking on the matter.

Pernsteiner couldn’t say whether those laid off would be able to return, although a special session will be held in June which could bring more budget cuts for the university.