Zack Dunn, Missouri-Kansas Laborers District Council
University of Missouri system employees are pushing back against proposed changes to the paid time off policy, saying it will mean a cut in benefits and less time off over all.
The changes would affect about 13,000 staff members across the system’s four campuses and the university hospital. System officials said the plan, which is still subject to change, is aimed at modernizing the leave policy, boosting recruitment and retention, and saving money.
“It certainly is a tough job market out there in any way, shape or form, and we always want to make sure that we are an attractive option for people who are looking for employment in higher education,” said university spokesman Christian Basi.
Laborers Local 955, the labor union representing service and maintenance workers at two of the system’s campuses and the University of Missouri hospital, has said the proposal unveiled earlier this summer would mean a cut in benefits for employees that would actually hamper recruitment and retention efforts.
The union is circulating a petition calling on the system’s Board of Curators to change course, and it held a rally Saturday at the system’s flagship campus in Columbia to make its case. Dozens attended the rally, the Columbia Missourian reported.
“Just from the signatures alone that we’ve received, people are very clear that the time off is one of the few reasons they work here,” said Andrew Hutchinson, a field representative for the union.
The divergent views of the two sides are just the latest sign of strained university-employee relations nationally. Petitions, rallies and other actions, including more labor organizing by groups seeking union representation, are increasingly being employed by professional but nonfaculty staff, such as graduate teaching assistants, and nonprofessional staff, such as dining hall workers and janitors. At Columbia University, graduate and undergraduate student workers went on strike last fall, which ended when the employees reached a contract agreement with the university. Staff at the University of Southern Mississippi rallied this past spring in support of a higher minimum wage, which was later increased from $10.10 to $11.25 an hour, Mississippi Today reported. Service workers at the University of Illinois protested last fall for higher wages.
UM system officials want to shift all staff members to a bank of paid time off rather than having separate buckets of vacation, personal and sick days. An hourly employee would go from starting with 41 days to 31, though the university is proposing to add short-term disability and four weeks of parental or caregiver leave to the policy.
The fight against the PTO changes is the latest battle in a years-long contract negotiation between Laborers Local 955 and the university system. The union represents 1,100 employees systemwide and, in recent years, has advocated for a $15 minimum wage and against the outsourcing of 300 custodial and landscaping jobs.
Last year, the union paraded a giant inflatable rat around the Columbia campus to protest the university’s stance on employee grievance procedures and union representation, Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson said employees at other universities represented by the union have been more willing to publicly advocate for themselves.
“We are seeing folks whose wages have stagnated for decades finally being fed up with rising inflation,” he said. “The folks I’m talking to are fed up of having to work two jobs. The university … used to be an employer of choice, and they’re not anymore. And massive vacancies are pushing people to the brink.”
The PTO proposal comes after years of discussion among university system administrators amid the Great Resignation. Colleges and universities nationally have seen an increase in turnover and burnout among staff and faculty. Efforts among staff and graduate students to unionize and bargain collectively are also increasing, said William A. Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.
Herbert said the increase in union campaigns in higher education and other industries stems from current economic conditions, including record inflation.
Basi said the PTO proposal has not been finalized and is subject to approval by the system’s Board of Curators. He said employees should not make assumptions before fully reviewing the plans. The university is hosting several virtual information sessions on the changes before the board’s next meeting in September and continuing to review feedback from employees, he said.
New Plan Details
The UM system has moderately revised its leave policies over the years, but Basi said the current proposal is one of the most comprehensive changes.
Starting hourly employees currently get 12 paid vacation days, four personal days and 12 sick days. The proposal would combine all types of leave into one PTO bank. Hourly employees would start with 18 days in PTO with increases at three and 10 years of service. Nine paid holidays and four days of winter break brings the total of potential paid days off to 31—10 fewer than the current system.
The university also is proposing to add short-term disability and four weeks of paid parental or caregiver leave.
According to a presentation provided to the Board of Curators, the proposed plan would be in line with what other Southeastern Conference and public AAU institutions offer.
Salaried staff members currently start with 17 vacation days, four personal days and 12 sick days and would get 23 days in their PTO bank, under the proposal, in addition to the nine holidays and four days for winter break.
System administrators worked with AON Consulting, a financial services firm that specializes in “human capital solutions,” to draft the new plan, which has been in the works since 2020.
“One of the big issues that we’ve had with our current leave program is the fact that it forces employees to choose how they take their day,” Basi said, adding that the proposed plan could allow more flexibility.
The Board of Curators reviewed the proposal at its June 23 meeting and is expected to vote on it next month. The new PTO system would not go into effect until 2024.
To Tyrone Turner, a member of the union and longtime carpenter at the University of Missouri at Columbia, the changes are “a bunch of malarkey.” He’s worked at the university for 30 years and is planning to retire in seven months, but he’s worried how the proposed changes will affect his family and friends who still work for the university.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had in my life,” he said. “But it’s not going to be as comfortable as it has been in the past.”
Under the current leave system, Turner said, he was able to attend his daughter’s track meets throughout her high school career and take a two-week family vacation to Buffalo, N.Y.
“I couldn’t do that if they restructured it,” he said, adding that he would be concerned about running out of time.
Turner and other employees can currently accrue an unlimited number of sick days along with twice the number of vacation days.
The June 23 presentation didn’t include information about whether days could be accrued in the new plan. Officials have said they will honor current employees’ saved vacation and sick leave.
“We certainly want to honor those accruals, so we’re working to make sure that we do that appropriately,” Basi said.
Turner said he wants to see the details of the plan before agreeing to any changes.
“I’m afraid to accept what they are going to do at this point,” he said.
Turner said he’s heard from several co-workers that they would leave if the changes went into effect.
“It’s caused total chaos,” he said. “You come to work here for the benefits, and now they are taking them. You have to reconsider if it’s worth it or not for you.”