Furloughs impact employees, community responds with relief fund

Julia Koh/The Occidental

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Occidental has a $33 million deficit for the 2020–21 fiscal year. To minimize this loss, President Harry J. Elam Jr. announced June 25 that all employees holding a staff position would need to take a furlough, which is an unpaid finite leave of absence, during the fiscal year. In response, the college community has established an Employee Relief Fund which has distributed almost $115,000 to employees affected by furloughs, according to Director of Communications and Community Relations Jim Tranquada.

The length of the furlough period varies between staff members. Fully furloughed employees are not permitted to communicate with students through college platforms or pursue any work for the college.

According to College Librarian Kevin Mulroy, he has only had to take minimal furlough time. Mulroy said the staff in the Library and Center for Digital Liberal Arts (CDLA) are required to take one, two or three weeks of furlough during the year, depending on their pay grade.

Mulroy said he appreciates the college’s flexibility in regards to scheduling the necessary time away from campus. For example, employees who have accrued vacation time are permitted to utilize it to alleviate salary loss.

“The college has generously allowed employees to use vacation time to offset salary loss due to furlough,” Mulroy said via email. “We also receive constant updates on city, country, and statewide guidance as well as reports on the planning taking place within senior administration.”

Edmond Johnson, professor of music history and director of advising and core program coordinator, said he is required to take 10 days of furlough before the end of the 2020–21 fiscal year.

“It’s not ideal, obviously, but it’s a minor inconvenience compared with the significant hardships faced by the employees who have been partially or fully furloughed for several months,” Johnson said via email.

Johnson said he felt the college’s communication with employees about furloughs was handled well.

“I personally think the college did a good job communicating the initial furlough plan. I had heard prior to the official announcement that furloughs were a significant possibility, but I didn’t know the full details until the announcement was made on June 25,” Johnson said via email.

However, Johnson said he is still trying to decide when it will be possible for him to take his furlough, due to his various job responsibilities.

“I have had a very busy semester with both my administrative responsibilities and teaching a class for the Music Department,” Johnson via email. “My current challenge is trying to figure out when I will be able to take the required time away from campus.”

Johnson expressed solidarity with staff members who have undergone more significant furloughs.

“I want to emphasize that the furlough I’m required to take is very different from the longer-term furloughs that are impacting many other employees,” Johnson said via email. “The employees who have been partially or fully furloughed for the entire fall semester have been facing much more significant challenges than those of us who were given a full year to take 5–15 furlough days.”

In response to the financial hardships incurred by the pandemic and resulting furloughs, a group of faculty, staff and students implemented the Employee Relief Fund, which is an application-based financial relief fund. The funds are donation-based and the application committee consists of Tranquada, chemistry professor Jeff Cannon, Urban & Environmental Policy Department Senior Program Coordinator Sylvia Chico, Gabi Rodriguez (junior) and Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Finance Manager Linda Schraeder.

Any active employees or furloughed employees making less than $100,000 are eligible to apply for the relief fund. If applications are approved by the committee, they are eligible for a one-time payment of up to $1,000 to pay for any medical or personal expenses incurred by COVID-19 between March 1 and Dec. 31, 2020. Tranquada is one of the staff members on the committee who reads the fund’s applications and said that applicants’ names are not considered in the application process.

“Grants are awarded based on such factors as seniority, whether the employee was furloughed, and how the grant would be used,” Tranquada said via email.

The committee has received a total of 143 applications for Employee Relief Fund grants over the past two months, according to Tranquada. Donations have made it possible to make grants of up to $1,000 each to 128 employees. Tranquada said he hopes the Occidental community will continue to donate and support the remaining employees who have applied for relief.

“All of the funds received to date have been distributed,” Tranquada said via email. “The hope is that the Oxy community will continue to give so that grants can be made to the 15 employees whose applications are still pending.”