Open letter calls for action from UK on employee vulnerabilities


Lauren Campbell

As the spring 2020 semester wound down, UK’s administration made several announcements about the university’s revenue shortfall and subsequent changes to the budget and campus operations, such as the furlough of 1,700 UK employees and a hiring pause “for the foreseeable future.”

As a response to some of those changes, UK graduate workers have addressed an open letter to President Capilouto and Gov. Andy Beshear, as well as all public higher education administrators in Kentucky and the Kentucky legislature, calling for action for campus employees during COVID-19.

The letter demands UK take steps to address the worsening living and working conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and recession, two crises that the letter says “has highlighted these areas of vulnerability in the higher education system.”

The demands are that UK approve hazard pay for hospital workers, lift the hiring freeze, commit to an extra year of funding for graduate workers, ensure the continued employment of contingent faculty, adjust the tenure time clock, honor research and funding commitments, extend staff healthcare options to all employees and students and give workers a voice in how the CARES Act funds are used.

UK received $17 million from the CARES Act, half of which must be distributed to students – a process UK began in the first week of May. The university has not announced what they will do with the remaining $8.9 million, which the act stipulates can be used for institutional reimbursement for disruptions caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

The letter also demands the the university not promote the pandemic as “extra time” for instructors to increase productivity or perfect online learning skills. 

The letter was originally written by seven UK graduate workers.

One of the original signers was Rachel Davis Young, a graduate worker in UK’s Department of Sociology, who said the idea for the letter began in meetings of the KY Chapter of United Campus Workers, a union organization that calls for fair pay, quality benefits and a voice for campus workers.

“We developed a lot of our key points for the letter in union meetings, but we decided to open up the letter to be from all campus workers in Kentucky and concerned community members so that we could get as many people to sign on as possible to hopefully get administrators to listen to us,” said Young.

Around 150 more people – students, faculty, staff, graduate workers and community members – have added their names to the letter since it was published.

One issue raised by the signees is that of administrative pay cuts.

“The most immediate threat people are facing is layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts,” Young said. “We strongly agree that the people who are making the most on campus should be the ones making the most sacrifice right now, but what is happening is the ones who are making the least are the ones making the most sacrifice.”

In addition to furloughs, UK employees will not receive merit raises this year and UK is reducing the commitment to retirement funds from 10 percent to 5 percent. UK spokesperson Jay Blanton confirmed to the Kernel that UK administrators would not take pay cuts. 

“Our budget officials conducted a lot of analysis of different scenarios that it would take to meet the goal of addressing this shortfall. As we talked to people throughout the institution, it was clear that if we needed to take additional steps, adjusting benefits first, in the way we did, would be a preferred option,” said Blanton.

Other universities in Kentucky, such as the University of Louisville, announced administrative pay cuts at the end of April. At U of L, any employee making over $300,000 would experience a 10 percent reduction in pay.

According to the Herald-Leader’s database of UK salaries, President Capilouto’s annual salary is $790,000, as of September 2019. Provost David Blackwell’s annual salary is $532,875. Mark Newman, UK HealthCare’s Executive Vice President for Health Affairs, has an annual salary of $1,133,730. Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Eric Monday’s annual salary is $444,619.

UK Board of Trustees member Lee Blonder raised the issue of pay cuts at the board’s May 2020 meeting and asked President Capilouto why he and UK’s other top-earners have not taken temporary salary reductions, like other university administrators around the country.

“What sacrifices are you, President Capilouto and the top salary earners, and I’m talking about people making a half-million to a million to a million and a half dollars, what cuts are you considering, what salary cuts, what sacrifices?” Blonder asked. “It would be a real morale booster to the community and to the state to know we were truly all in this together.” 

Blonder mentioned the open letter and also said the issue had resulted in “negative publicity” for UK. She also said that in some colleges, to meet the 10 percent budget reduction asked for by UK, faculty members were losing money because of proposed slashes to awards and salaries.

Capilouto acknowledged other universities whose administrators have taken salary reductions but did not announce any plans for he or other UK staffers to do so.

“I personally understand the responsibilities I have with the privileges that come with my office. I plan to meet those and I will do so, and I will ask others at the appropriate time to join me in the way I do them,” said Capilouto.

In addition to the demands related to the COVID-19 crisis, the letter also lists demands for workers to be supported beyond the current moment as a way “to restructure our educational institutions for the better.” 

That lists includes a living wage, parental leave and childcare, comprehensive healthcare for all campus workers, university commitments to addressing discrimination and transparency in decision-making processes. 

And despite listing demands, they are referring to the document as an “open letter” and not a “petition.”

“We are not calling it a petition because with a petition you do have a set number of signers. And usually, once you reach that number then whatever it is gets sent to top people, and often petition processes are slower, they are more bureaucratic, and we wanted ours to be an open letter because we just wanted to open up this line of communication,” said Young.

Blanton said he expects UK to communicate more about the budget in the next several days. The Board of Trustees will vote to approve the budget at their next meeting, on June 18 and June 19.