In summary

The University of California is laying off hundreds of workers in the midst of a pandemic, pushing employees onto the unemployment system.

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By Liz Perlman, Special to CalMatters

Liz Perlman is the executive director of AFSCME Local 3299, a University of California employee union,

For hundreds of low-wage workers who were recently laid off at the University of California, the expired federal enhancement to unemployment gave them a larger paycheck than they would have received at UC.

But every one of them would rather have the security that comes with a job.  And the University of California literally has $10 billion reasons not to have laid them off in the first place.

Jesse Hernandez, a senior cook at UC Riverside, is one of those workers. He’s been cooking meals for UC Riverside students for the better part of 20 years.   He loves his job and understands why most students will not be on campus in the fall.  He is prepared to re-train and re-deploy to another UC campus or medical facility to support the response to COVID-19.  He knows what we all know – that there is plenty of work to do across the UC system, and UC can afford to get it done.

You see the University of California is sitting on $30 billion in an investment pool and endowment assets.  And $10 billion of that money is unrestricted and could be used to give real security to real people like Jesse right now.

Instead, UC chose to lay off Jesse and hundreds of his colleagues.  The layoffs have also included dozens of frontline medical workers in the midst of a pandemic.  In each case, the workers will still get paid, except by taxpayers instead of the UC.   

And that should outrage us all.

Across California, there are millions of workers who have been displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In most cases, they work for smaller employers who do not have billions in reserves to absorb a once in a century shock. But UC does, and can afford not to cast devoted career employees aside – workers it will need once this pandemic subsides.

 Sadly, such a response in the face of economic disruption isn’t unprecedented at UC.

Over much of the past decade, and especially following the 2008 recession, the University of California moved aggressively toward outsourcing career jobs to private contractors that paid their workers so little that they were reliant on public assistance just to get by.  In most cases, the workers had no access to the health care benefits or paid sick leave guaranteed to UC employees performing the same jobs. While it was a different time, the effect of the practice was the same – pushing more and more of the university’s direct labor costs and its responsibilities as the state’s third largest employer – onto the backs of California taxpayers.

After a nearly five-year struggle, UC signed a new collective bargaining agreement with its largest union in February, with strong provisions to limit this practice and guarantee that current contract workers would be brought in house and treated as regular UC employees.

Yet UC has recently balked at those commitments, refusing to in-source a group of contractors at UCLA, even as it pushes more and more of its lowest wage career employees onto the taxpayer-funded unemployment system.

To those who would claim that UC is already a taxpayer-funded institution, it is important to remember that UC only gets about 10% of its annual operating revenue from the government.  The rest comes from tuition, donations, investments, real estate holdings, medical center revenue and other private sources.

The savings from the layoffs and delayed in-sourcing commitments UC has already imposed on hundreds of frontline workers – and principally people of color – at UC Hastings, UC San Francisco, UCLA, UC Riverside and UC San Diego is a few million dollars. That’s equivalent to what it pays a small handful of its top administrators in the course of a year.

But the value and dignity that comes from secure employment is worth much more.   UC has more than enough resources to make a different choice.  Thankfully, our state lawmakers know this as well and have included provisions in this year’s budget to incentivize UC to keep more people like Jessie Hernandez and his colleagues on the job.  And that’s not just a win for workers – it’s a victory for California taxpayers.

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