LARAMIE — Take a tour of University of Wyoming’s Service Building with Executive Director of UW Operations John Davis and you will hear a common refrain as he introduces the electricians, welders, carpenters, painters and others who keep UW running: “We’re lucky to have them.”
Coming off a year of severe budget cuts — handed down by the State Legislature in the face of declining extraction tax revenues — UW is being staffed by fewer people, who are subsequently asked to do more.
Starting in the summer of 2016 and continuing until May, the university lost roughly 370 people through vacancy eliminations, separation incentives and layoffs, including approximately 300 staff members. Exactly 43 faculty members took separation incentive packages, though many more left at the end of the academic year or before the start of the fall 2017 semester.
Operations — previously known as the Physical Plant — absorbed a number of other departments around campus as part of a reorganization implemented to cut costs.
“So, if you look at those individual departments versus one department now, there’s in the neighborhood of 30 positions that are no longer here,” Davis said. “But there are some efficiencies gained in combining the departments, so it wasn’t like someone cut us from 30 positions … It’s the positions that were open at the time that were eliminated.”
But positions lost, even without layoffs, are challenging to work around, he added.
“We like to think we’re working smarter, but the fact of the matter is we’re not able to do everything we were able to do before,” Davis said.
The situation is similar across campus, said Staff Senate President Rachel Stevens.
“What Staff Senate hears is that in many situations, people are being asked to pick up more of the workload in departments where they have lost staffing positions,” she said. “And we get reports that people feel like they can’t use their vacation leave.”
With some 300 staff positions cut — including the 37 staff laid off in May during the final round of budget reductions — many of the remaining employees are overwhelmed, Stevens said.
“If they’re out for a day, they come back and they’re so far behind, they feel very stressed about getting caught up,” she said. “Quite honestly, in some departments, there has to be a reduction in services that are offered, whether that is student support or faculty support. You just can’t do the same amount of work with so many fewer people.”
UW President Laurie Nichols said many staff likely felt this way because so many units on campus experienced reorganizations or alterations.
“(Unit leaders) had to sit down and look at what they had for staffing and then make some determinations about perhaps rewriting job descriptions and moving some job responsibilities around, or even eliminating things, saying we can’t do this anymore,” Nichols said.
Stevens added administrative staff are generally hit harder than academic staff, which makes operating the institution more difficult.
“Those (are) positions you’re constantly losing every time there’s budget cuts and you don’t tend to get them back when the budget comes back,” she said. “So, over time, you’re trying to maintain the campus with a smaller and smaller personnel budget.”
Stevens said UW employed around 1,400 staff members before the budget cuts. The number is now around 1,100.
Nichols said there has been some confusion surrounding these eliminated positions. While many are waiting for UW to rebuild its staff base, Nichols said the fact is these positions will not be refilled.
“Those positions aren’t coming back,” she said. “They’re gone because we had to decrease our budget by roughly $45 million.”
Because so many of the cuts came by way of eliminated vacancies, the departments in the worst situation were those which happened to be down a large number of people when the hiring freeze started in 2015.
“Overall, we’re still meeting the needs of the university,” Davis said. “But the custodial ones hurt the most because we just can’t clean like we used to clean — because of the staffing reductions — and we’re working on that.”
An external study of UW’s custodial services reported the university would need to invest approximately $660,000 — including hiring roughly 20 more staff members — to reach an adequate level of cleanliness.
“The campus is generally clean and healthy and does not have a cleaning crisis,” the report states. “However, overall campus interior appearance, general cleanliness and conditions of interior surfaces are trending toward an unsustainable state.”
The report, compiled by Hunter Consulting and Training, was delivered to the Board of Trustees during its November meeting.
UW President Laurie Nichols said at the meeting she appreciated the report. She added UW’s path forward should include more than increasing the number of staff members.
“We would like to address this systemically and at the very foundation, so we can have a really good custodial and cleaning service on this campus,” Nichols said. “So, I would just caution us not to try to do a knee-jerk reaction to this, but allow our professionals and our team to come back with their comprehensive recommendations, which we will take very seriously.”
Davis is currently preparing a plan for improving custodial services. The plan, which Davis said will attempt to follow the guidelines of the report, must be approved by Nichols, then the board, before the hiring of new custodial positions can begin.
Elsewhere, the board has approved the hiring of approximately 20 full-time academic advisers as part of an advising system overhaul that will essentially triple the number of advisers employed by UW.
Paid for by a bump in student fees, the new system is scheduled to be in place by fall 2018.
“Unless you see more staff positions that are being funded with alternate sources of revenue, like program fees, I would not expect those positions to come back anytime soon,” Stevens said.