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UM Details New Voluntary Severance Offer To Trim Employee Numbers

University Hall at The University of Montana.
Josh Burnham

University of Montana officials have revealed details of a new voluntary severance package designed to entice eligible staffers to leave UM. UM this year has already presented two buyout rounds to faculty.

Judging by the number and content of questions asked during a campus meeting Wednesday, the idea seems to have stirred up some interest.

Questions from the audience: “When would we be able to put our name in a hat if we opt for this?”

“So, my question is, if we were to take this offer and a few years down the road, hiring freezes are lifted, do we have an opportunity to come back?”

“If I’m post-65 and I take this offer, what’s to prevent me from then taking my retirement package from the university?”

“Is there a limit to how many people you’re offering this package?”

Here’s what’s going on. UM needs to cut an unspecified number of "excess" personnel. President Sheila Stearns says the university is spending upwards of 90 percent of its budget on faculty and staff. For a school like UM, Stearns says that figure should be more like 70 percent of its budget, especially given its ongoing enrollment challenges.

"And my goal, as I mentioned last January as I started this very interesting journey of 2017, was to get at that; but to get at it in as wise and humane at that out-of-whack percentage as we possibly could,” Stearns says.

Now staffers get their shot at a buyout offer. There are some caveats though: Only full-time, general-fund supported employees who are classified staff, contract professionals or contract administrators are eligible.

Rosi Keller, a UM vice president, laid out the terms of the voluntary severance package during Wednesday’s meetings. Among them:

"Your employment duties will terminate as of December 31, 2017. You will be paid for the six months of the rest of this fiscal year. Even though you will terminate on December 31, you will receive your wages for January through June," Keller said.

One full year of medical and dental is also thrown in.
"So that means from January 1 of 2018 through December 31 of 2018," Keller explained. "One of the things we often hear from employees is their willingness to go, but they’re scared to death of the health insurance given the what the world of health insurance is today."

Eligible employees interested in the severance package, but not in the insurance package, could also elect to take a lump sum payment of over $12,600, in lieu of insurance.

Longtime UM employees peppered Keller with lots of questions about how the voluntary severance package would jibe with their pensions.

"If you take this package you are terminating your employment with the university," Keller said. "It does not exclude you from deciding to retire. Retiring is a separate issue. That’s handled through whoever your retirement plan is with. You get your pension and all those things that you normally would get. [But you’re] not eligible for the UM retiree benefits."

Those UM retiree benefits – or 'privileges', as they’re sometimes called – include things like bookstore discounts, complimentary athletic tickets and one free parking permit.

Donald Wilson is a staffer who’s worked with UM’s grounds keeping crew for 17 years. He’s 64-years-old and as he puts it, "I see the light at the end of the tunnel where I can’t do this forever, so it actually would be a very good thing for me. Maybe the one advantage to them would be, you know, old people get hurt easier than young people. I know it costs them money, workers comp-wise etc, etc, so maybe they’ll see some savings there."

Still, Wilson wonders if UM will bother to offer any staff buyouts to anyone in his department since he says it’s so small and understaffed.

He’ll find out soon enough. UM says its Human Resources Department will soon start notifying eligible employees. Those who get the notice and are interested in finding out more, must let the university know by November 22. UM says it does not know right now how many total eligible staffers will be able to take advantage of its voluntary severance offer.

A total of fourteen faculty members took advantage of UM’s buyout offers earlier this year, representing a salary and benefit savings of almost $1.9 million.

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