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Professional Staff Congress

The union representing faculty and staff at the City University of New York has filed suit in federal court to force the public university system to rehire recently laid-off employees and to refrain from making any further layoffs.

The lawsuit, filed July 2, also seeks back pay and other benefits for any employee “who has been financially harmed by CUNY's improper layoffs,” according to a press release from the Professional Staff Congress, or PSC/CUNY, the union representing 30,000 system employees.

The move comes after CUNY informed some 2,800 employees -- most of them adjunct professors and part-time staff -- across its 25 colleges and universities last week that they would not be reappointed in the fall due to cost-cutting measures in anticipation of state and city funding cuts. CUNY said the cuts were necessitated by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The city has already announced $20 million in midyear funding cuts to CUNY’s budget; the state cut could be as high as $95 million.

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Frank Sobrino, a CUNY spokesman, declined to discuss the lawsuit. "We do not comment on pending litigation," he said.

The system did release a statement about the layoffs, which noted that CUNY is facing the same funding pressures and budget challenges as university systems across the country due to the financial costs of the pandemic and the unpredictability of enrollment in the fall.

"Part-time faculty are valued members of the CUNY community who make important contributions inside and outside of our classrooms," the statement said. "As is customary in making reappointment decisions for adjuncts, the university and its colleges relied on the best fiscal information and enrollment projections currently available and endeavored to protect as many jobs as possible. Unfortunately, CUNY is not immune to the challenges and uncertainties engendered by the COVID-19 crisis, and in the absence of federal funding to support New York State and New York City through this crisis, our fiscal outlook is dim and uncertain … As a result, colleges are informing a large number of adjunct professors that their reappointment for the Fall 2020 semester cannot be guaranteed. If the federal government acts as it should, and the fiscal outlook improves, many could be re-hired to teach in the fall."

The union claims in the lawsuit that CUNY violated its obligations under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, legislation that provided funding to help colleges and students pay expenses related to the pandemic. CUNY received $251 million in CARES Act funding; system administrators say much more is needed.

The union contends that CUNY has already begun distributing $118 million in emergency financial aid to students but has not accounted for $132 million promised for “institutional needs.”

“One of the conditions of the funding is that higher education institutions must, to the ‘greatest extent practicable’ retain all employees on payroll,” the press release stated. “Despite this requirement, CUNY colleges have laid off close to 3,000 adjunct faculty and staff.”

CUNY also informed the union that 422 adjuncts will lose health insurance because of non-reappointments or reductions in hours or teaching assignments. According to the union, adjuncts had to teach at least six credit hours to be eligible for insurance. Adjuncts who were on the health insurance plan during both the fall and spring semesters will retain their coverage through August, the union said.

“How can CUNY lay off thousands of workers when it has been awarded $251 million in CARES Act funds, which come with an explicit requirement about keeping employees on payroll? Adjuncts are essential faculty and staff at CUNY; they must not be treated as disposable,” Barbara Bowen, president of the union, said in written statement included in the press release. “The PSC will not stand by as CUNY lays off adjuncts and eliminates classes for students when Congress named job protection at colleges as one of the purposes of the stimulus bill.”

CUNY employs 12,000 adjuncts, 2,000 of whom were provided health insurance. CUNY and the union signed an agreement in May stating that the “chancellor will direct the colleges to make every effort” to keep insured adjuncts eligible for coverage. "Yet roughly 20 percent of insured adjuncts will lose coverage," the union noted.

Thousands of union members have signed a petition calling on the CUNY chancellor and Board of Trustees to pursue alternatives to layoffs and to maintain employees' health insurance.

The job cuts were not unexpected. Some of the CUNY colleges started giving adjunct professors written notice in May that their teaching appointments would not be renewed.

The loss of jobs and health care could not come at a worse time for CUNY employees. Both the state's and city's economy, like that of much of the rest of the country, has been hard hit by the pandemic. The city’s unemployment rate increased from 15 percent in April to 18.3 percent in May, even as the statewide unemployment rate fell from 15.3 percent to 14.5 percent during the same period, according to the New York Department of Labor.

Although the city is no longer the epicenter of the public health crisis, losing health insurance during a deadly pandemic still has serious implications. At least 38 people affiliated with CUNY, the majority of them faculty and staff, have died from complications related to COVID-19. While deaths citywide have decreased significantly, the economic consequences of the pandemic is expected to last longer and to be more far-reaching.

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