Layoffs are occurring in George Washington University administrative units as vice presidents and deans respond to the unprecedented financial challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. GW Today spoke to Chief People Officer Dana Bradley to provide more context about these actions and the transition assistance being provided to those affected.
Why are layoffs occurring?
First, let me say that we face a shared challenge of weathering this unprecedented situation presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and preserving our core academic mission while we adjust to meet the needs of our students and faculty, all while delivering a high-quality academic experience for our students. It is a difficult challenge that will require hard decisions. Change is extremely difficult. It is hard to lose valued colleagues who have been an important part of the university. It is stressful to navigate a situation with so many unknowns. Know that care for our affected employees is at the heart of how we are helping those affected manage their transition. Conversations within affected teams are critical as we emerge from this difficult time and prepare for what will be an intense fall supporting our students and faculty in achieving our core academic mission.
Regarding layoffs, leaders of administrative units, including vice presidents and deans, were asked to evaluate their organizations and determine how they could operate more efficiently and effectively given our evolving needs and needs for the foreseeable future. Layoffs are part of this streamlining. I know this is deeply unsettling for many members of our university community, and there are many questions about who is and will be affected. I encourage leaders and managers to talk to their staffs and urge staff members to talk to their leadership about the impact of these efforts on their organizations.
Where are layoffs occurring?
All central and school-based administrative units have been asked to identify opportunities to restructure and streamline. Vice presidents, deans and their leadership teams are making very difficult decisions about what is core and essential to their operations, how to perform their functions as efficiently as possible, and what changes might be necessary to adapt to the needs of the university for the foreseeable future. In some cases, there is a look at what services could be shared across administrative units to increase coordination and collaboration and achieve economies of scale. Because these efforts are still in the discussion and planning stages in some cases, the full scope is yet to be determined. All administrative units are expected to have layoffs as part of this effort.
How many layoffs are occurring?
Determinations about restructuring are being made within each administrative unit. While there is a great sense of urgency given the financial impact of COVID-19, each unit is making its own determinations about staffing levels necessary given current needs and anticipated needs for the foreseeable future. The goal has been for each vice president and dean to determine the scale and scope that is appropriate for their unit, rather than assigning a specific percentage or number to meet. However, it is clear that reductions must be made, and we do anticipate reductions in every administrative unit. Layoffs that have already occurred are in the dozens, and the overall impact is likely in the low hundreds.
What is the timeframe for these actions?
Administrative units are on different timetables, with some beginning their restructuring as early as July. While there are many unknowns about the pandemic, and we can’t preclude the need for further action in the future, the administrative units are expected to complete their restructuring efforts by the end of August.
Do affected staff receive severance?
Yes, every staff member who is affected receives severance based on years of service to the university. As layoffs are immediate upon notification, each affected employee automatically receives two weeks of transition pay, followed by one week of pay for every year of service, up to 20 years. At a minimum, for employees who have worked at the university for only a year or two, they will receive at least four weeks of pay (two weeks of transition pay and two weeks of severance pay). At maximum, employees who have worked at the university for 20 years or more will receive 22 weeks of pay (two weeks of transition pay and 20 weeks of severance pay).
Employees can elect to receive severance in one of two ways, as a lump sum or as salary continuation, which means they would continue to be on the payroll in an inactive status for the duration of their severance period. For employees who elect to receive a lump sum, the university will pay for COBRA health insurance premiums for the time period the employee is eligible for severance (i.e., if an employee is eligible for 20 weeks of severance, the university will pay five months of COBRA premiums on behalf of the employee). For employees who elect salary continuation, they will continue to receive their severance pay and continue certain previously-elected insurance benefits, including medical, prescription drug, dental, vision and life insurance, during the severance period via payroll deduction. All employees who are laid off also receive outplacement assistance to aid in next steps career planning and are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits. HRMD business partners walk affected employees through all of their options and the services available to them and aid them in their transition.
What happens to benefits?
Employees who are laid off and are currently using tuition benefits will continue to receive tuition benefits through the end of this academic year and through spring 2021. Health insurance can be continued through COBRA for those who elect the lump sum severance option or through their regular payroll deduction for those who choose the salary continuation option. As an employee enters inactive status, contributions for retirement plans will cease and HRMD business partners will provide detailed guidance about how to follow up with retirement plan providers and answer any other questions related to benefits.
Why are you notifying affected employees and terminating them immediately?
In general, when employees are notified that the university is ending their employment, employees are told that they should no longer work beyond that date. It is important to note that employees are paid for the initial two weeks as a period of “paid notice,” followed by severance based on years of service. We have heard feedback that in some cases it would be helpful to have some affected employees retain access to email for a limited period of time beyond the notification to enable an orderly transition of responsibilities and any outstanding action items. We are looking into how we can facilitate such requests on a case-by-case basis.
Is assistance available to staff who may need emotional support?
Our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available to any faculty and staff who may need support. This service is free to all faculty and staff. The first step is to contact our Well-Being Hotline to discuss your individual needs and situation. Detailed information about how to access EAP services is made available to staff who are laid off as part of their transition conversation with HRMD client partners. Any faculty or staff member can use these services, and I encourage all faculty and staff to become familiar with them.
It is really important for managers and staff to be in constant communication. I know this can be challenging when we are all virtual, but it is more imperative than ever that we stay connected and continue to build and support a sense of team. Staff are encouraged to talk to their managers, and managers are encouraged to have conversations with their teams about how they may be affected. Managers who need support and assistance are encouraged to reach out to their leadership and HR business partners.