August 9, 2002

Library attempts to cut staff without layoffs

The University library system has virtually stopped hiring new employees in order to avoid layoffs due to its tight yearly budget. Citing increased acquisitions costs and a budget increase lower than inflation, library officials say they are facing several years of cutbacks in employee compensation. They plan to lose employees through attrition and fill essential positions with current library employees.

"Even though there will be no increase in the salary budget, we do plan to increase staff salaries for Fiscal Year (FY) 2003. To pay for these increases we will have to reduce staff and achieve savings in other parts of the budget," library director Martin Runkel told his staff in a February e-mail.

Several employees have left the library since February, and the library's Administrative Committee reviewed each vacated position to determine whether it is essential to the function of the library.

The Strategy

This practice continues, but in addition, positions deemed essential are initially available only to those who already work for the library. "When there are openings within the library, we prefer to fill them with present staff," Runkel said.

Applications from outside the library are sought only if the position cannot be filled by reassigning a library staff member.

This policy, which will continue at least until December, covers all positions with benefits, including clerical positions. And although student employees do not receive benefits, vacated student positions will not necessarily be filled.

The Rationale

According to Runkel, the library received budget guidelines from the Provost's Office dictating a 6% increase in acquisitions spending and no increase in the salaries and operations budget. However, University budget director Christopher Heiser says that the library decides how to distribute its budget. "It comes basically as a lump sum, and then they're responsible for meeting that end total, but they can substitute in line items," he said. "I have no reason to believe that the library isn't going to meet their budget."

Library officials tell a different story. In a series of emails to staff, Runkel called for decreased expenditures to meet compensation allocations set, he says, by the University. "The University did not provide for increases in the Library's compensation and operating budgets for this [2003] fiscal year," he said. "The financial problem for FY2003 is exacerbated by a projected over-expenditure in the salary budget this year (FY 2002)…[we] have to reduce expenditures in order to end the year as close to budget as we can manage," Runkel said in the February email.

Overall, the library's budget increased approximately 2.75% this year, but that increase does not cover the increased cost of scholarly publications, materials from abroad, and electronic acquisitions. According to Runkel, last year the library spent $2 million of its $13 million budget on electronic information such as subscriptions to online versions of academic journals.

These electronic additions to the library's collection do not replace traditional print acquisitions, often of the same journals.

In addition, half of the library's acquisitions for the permanent collections come from foreign countries. "The value of the dollar is decreasing against foreign currency, and therefore our purchasing power is decreasing," Runkel said. "This puts a strain on the collection's budget."

The Union Complaint

The library's strategy to reduce costs through dropped staff numbers has fallen under the fire of the University union of clerical, service/maintenance, and animal care specialist employees, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 743.

Local 743's representative steward, library acquisitions assistant Gary Mamlin, has filed a union grievance against the University stating that the current hiring policy violates the union's contract with the University.

According to section six of the contract, vacancies in University clerical positions must be posted as available to all union members in the University. Employees of the posting department do receive priority when applying for the position, but nevertheless all union members have the opportunity to indicate their interest in the position.

Open positions are posted online in the University's job directory.

Currently, the library lists its available positions in a separate site and as available only to library staff. Denise Weintraub, the library's administrative manager, has also suggested that library positions be posted on University bulletin boards.

Mamlin's grievance states that posting only to library employees violates the union contract. The grievance is being addressed in meetings between union representatives and Sandra Bateman, the University's director of employee/labor relations. If the grievance is not resolved, an independent arbitrator may be brought in.

According to Mamlin, who has served as union steward for several years, the library's budget problems are not new but rather a symptom of perennial shortfall. "Ever since I've been here they've been complaining about budget problems," he said. "The library has always had a very lean budget."

Comparison Shopping

The lack of resources, Mamlin says, may lead to declining service. "The library has historically been more draconian with its staff compensation than comparable libraries elsewhere and than other University of Chicago departments," he said. "It may be hard for them to continue functioning and to provide first rate service to… patrons if too many additional jobs are eliminated."

According to the Association of Research Libraries' 2001 Salary Survey, the University's professional employees (with an average of 15.3 years of experience) received a median salary less than those at Brown University, University of California-Berkeley, Boston College, Harvard University, Dartmouth College, Columbia University, University of Cincinnati, Princeton University, Rice University, Stanford University, and Yale University.

However, the University's average professional salary was higher than four of those. "We're quite competitive with other research universities," Runkel said.

According to Runkel, the library has consistently been ranked fifth or sixth in the country for highest expenditure per student. "We have a relatively small student body, so our per-student expenditures are quite competitive," he said. "Whether you have 10 classics majors or 100 of them, you have to have the same books."

Larger Problems

Both Runkel and Heiser say that the University's entire budget is currently being challenged, and certain areas receive priority in resource allocation. "I will always advocate for the library," Runkel said, "but I also have to think of the needs of the entire University."

According to Heiser, those critical needs are academic costs like recruiting faculty, providing student aid—and maintaining the library. The budgets of administrative offices like the bursar and budget fall to the wayside. "When… you have to tighten your belt at all, they're the places you want to tighten," Heiser said.

Some University departments received no budget increases for the current year, while others received modest increases like the library's.

"We're basically in sound shape," Runkel said. "It's not as if we're falling apart by any means. We've gone through these budget constrictions in the past, and so you make some adjustments to live within the budget."