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University of Montana: 63 staff furloughed
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University of Montana: 63 staff furloughed

University Hall at the University of Montana

The University of Montana campus

The University of Montana announced Monday it is temporarily laying off 63 employees because of the coronavirus-caused exodus from campus.

With fewer than 100 students still living on campus as classes moved to remote instruction, university officials said the auxiliary units, like dining, residence halls and campus recreation, weren't bringing in enough money to support a full staff load.

In a Monday email to the campus community, President Seth Bodnar announced the furloughs, which are planned to last until August 1, saying the people being laid off were often the ones on the front lines serving students, and that the decision did not come lightly.

"Each furloughed individual was given a month's notice and will continue to receive University benefits — including medical insurance — and will maintain their employment status during the period of furlough," Bodnar wrote. "Each will have access to unemployment benefits, and, as soon as we are able, we will work to have our colleagues rejoin us on campus."

Bodnar also noted he had decided to donate a quarter of his salary back to the university to help the budget hole created in part by refunds on student housing payments and lost events revenue. His yearly salary was set at $326,524 in November after a 2% raise was approved by the Board of Regents, meaning a quarter would be roughly $82,000. 

The email noted other senior leaders at UM would donate a part of their salary as well, but how much and by whom was not included.

UM spokesperson Paula Short said the Human Resources department would not be releasing more specific numbers about how many people were being furloughed in each department, as some departments were so small that people would be easily identified. However, Short said the majority of the positions were in campus housing and dining operations, and the median salary of the furloughed employees is $31,344.

Asked about the possibility of extending the furloughs depending on how the COVID-19 situation develops into the fall, Short said she could only say they were planned to end August 1.

The Montana University System estimated in March that the COVID-19 pandemic and the decision to teach all classes remotely would lead to about an $18 million loss system-wide by the end of the fiscal year. 

In late March, the university system announced a statewide hiring freeze until further notice on all positions, unless approved on a case-by-case basis through the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

Colleges and universities across the country have been thrown into a loop as they try to estimate how the pandemic will affect enrollment, with many schools taking steps to waive admissions requirements, like test scores, and pushing back deadlines for various steps in the process. Scores of surveys have been conducted, which have largely found more students than usual are concerned about finances, and are considering changing their college attendance plans in some form due to the pandemic.

UM has already announced a number of steps it is taking to try to accommodate different priorities and preferences it is anticipating students will have in the upcoming year, including adding more online class options and partnering more closely with its regional sister institutions, like those in Helena and Butte, so students can start on a UM degree in their hometowns. 

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