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Support staff proposal stalls

2:00:03 PM CDT - Wednesday, April 05, 2006

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

With a ruling by the Board of Regents to allow an increase in benefits and no room in the university budget for merit increases, a proposal that would have allowed WSU classified employees to opt out of the state civil service has stalled.

"If enrollment starts to climb and we see increases in enrollment dollars, then maybe we can look at this again," said Ellen Abbey, a 25-year WSU employee who chaired the committee that developed the proposal. "If we can't give the staff something, then we have no reason to move on this."

For more than two years a group at WSU, initially composed of classified and unclassified staffers, had been exploring the possibility of an alternative employment system following pioneering and similar efforts started in 2003 at the University of Kansas.

 Last year, the Kansas Legislature passed a bill that allows classified employees at state universities to become university support staff. KU employees became the first and only staff to opt out of the system.

The proposal from WSU employees included an increase in vacation time, by a maximum of one day, and the possibility for merit increases, if the university's budget allowed.

The proposed vacation time increase raised questions at the regents level.

After researching the history of the bill, regents attorney Mary Prewitt said the bill was intended only to allow universities to set up their own salary plans; other forms of compensation and all other benefits would remain the same as those in the state civil service system.

With money from tuition increases, the KU administration provided salary increases of 3 percent across-the-board, along with merit raises of 1.5 percent when its classified employees opted out of the state system.

"We didn't push our tuition up like KU did to fund those pay raises," explained Roger Lowe, vice president for administration and finance. WSU has been implementing much smaller tuition increases than KU, which last year increased its tuition by more than 14 percent, while WSU's increased by 8.3 percent. This year WSU is proposing a 7 percent increase in tuition.

The university's tight budget also doesn't allow WSU to implement another possible salary adjustment, called in-grade pay increases, that was authorized by Gov. Sebelius in January 2005. Under that authorization, state agencies can increase the pay of some classified employees based on such factors as the possibility of the person retiring or leaving for a higher paying job.

"We looked at that, but we have the same problem with the funding of it," said Lowe. "The funds are not there."

While the WSU proposal is no longer under consideration, Abbey said the effort was worthwhile.

"I think we would have been foolish to not look into any option to better our situation," Abbey said. "It doesn't hurt to explore and ask questions."

She's heard from some employees that creating an employee advocate pool in the grievance process, called for in the proposal, is something that they would like to see explored further even if the overall proposal isn't going anywhere.



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