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UMass Lowell staff, adjunct faculty and union representatives set out 200 chairs to represent just a portion of the people they say will be cut or laid off due to budget cuts in the UMass system. From left, Rob Talbot of Beverly, secretary of the adjunct faculty union (UAW Local #1596), adjunct professor of music Mark Michaels of Malden, laid off supervisor of office services Christos Protonotarios of Lowell, director of worker health & safety training Tom Estabrook of Somerville, and UAW Local #1596 organizer Emily Schkeryantz of Harvard. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
UMass Lowell staff, adjunct faculty and union representatives set out 200 chairs to represent just a portion of the people they say will be cut or laid off due to budget cuts in the UMass system. From left, Rob Talbot of Beverly, secretary of the adjunct faculty union (UAW Local #1596), adjunct professor of music Mark Michaels of Malden, laid off supervisor of office services Christos Protonotarios of Lowell, director of worker health & safety training Tom Estabrook of Somerville, and UAW Local #1596 organizer Emily Schkeryantz of Harvard. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
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LOWELL — To represent UMass Lowell employees set to lose their jobs, 200 empty chairs, complete with pink slips attached to them, were set up outside UMass Lowell’s Manning School of Business on Thursday morning.

UMass Unions United-Lowell created the scene as part of a protest against the university’s plan to layoff employees, due to what university officials say is an expected $50 million budget gap, created by the pandemic.

“We are expecting a $50 million budget gap this fiscal year, with the uncertainties of enrollment, student housing and the state appropriation,” said Christine Gillette, a spokeswoman for UMass Lowell. “Tuition was frozen to help our students during these difficult times, but also resulted in a loss of anticipated revenue.”

In a press release issued by UMass Unions United-Lowell — which makes claims that are contested by a university spokeswoman — the coalition states campus administration “has targeted more than 100 adjunct professors and 100 full-time campus staff positions, as well as cut approximately 1,000 jobs performed by graduate employees, students and temporary workers.”

That was in addition to more than 1,000 furloughs during the summer and the elimination of more than 112 vacant positions on campus, the coalition claims in the release.

Elizabeth Pellerito, director of the Labor Education Program at UMass Lowell, said she is one of many to recently receive a layoff notice that told her the university would not pay her salary through at least the end of the year.

“I call on the leadership of our university to do the brave thing right now, and not the easy thing, by rescinding my layoff and the hundreds of other layoffs they have issued,” Pellerito said during Thursday’s protest. “Find a solution that doesn’t hurt me, doesn’t hurt us, and doesn’t hurt our legacy.”

In the UMass Unions United-Lowell press release, the group states the loss of positions will disrupt the learning experience for students and compromise the health and safety of those working on campus.

“The job losses are not necessary despite the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, and according to the coalition, show a lack of leadership by UMass Lowell administrators who have not committed to any sacrifice at the top before cutting front-line staff, student workers, adjunct faculty and part-time employees,” the release states.

The coalition urges UMass administrators to use existing reserve funds and non-personnel cost savings and to advocate for federal resources to maintain the university’s current staffing level.

Gillette pointed out the univeristy has been advocating for federal funding and continues to do so. This was one of the few inaccuracies Gillette said were asserted in the coalition’s press release.

According to Gillette, university administrators, including Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, have made sacrifices. The university spokeswoman said five furlough days have been taken by all staff, and 10 to 20 days for senior administrators. Moloney in all will take a total of 22 unpaid furlough days. Gillette also said about 15 administrator positions have been frozen or those holding those jobs have been laid off.

In response to another coalition claim, Gillette stated the university has not laid off adjunct faculty.

“While we expect a reduction in the number of these part-time faculty who will be teaching this fall, they are notified each year about which courses they are needed for,” Gillette said. “We do not have a final number yet.”

Gillette pointed out UMass Lowell, like colleges, universities, businesses and other organizations across the world, is facing financial challenges because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She added they brought 2,700 classes online in March, moving to remote operations to protect the health and safety of their staff.

“These created technological and other unanticipated expenses in addition to refunding $15 million in students’ room, board and parking and the loss of revenue streams from events and other resources,” Gillette said.

UMass Lowell instituted multiple cost-saving measures, included a 20% cut in their operating budget; the elimination of staff and administrator positions; laying off part-time workers; and reductions in construction and capital projects. Gillette pointed out, despite the reductions, UMass Lowell had to make to temporarily lay off about 100 staff.

“This is no reflection on their contributions to the university, as our staff are hard-working, dedicated and committed to the excellence of our university and the support of our students,” Gillette said. “As they are still university employees, on extended leave, they continue to maintain their health insurance and other benefits and are eligible to receive unemployment insurance to help offset the personal financial impact.”

On Monday, it was revealed UMass will cut fiscal 2021 spending about 5% below last year’s level, as part of a strategy to close a $264 million budget gap as the university and students prepare for a different college experience.

Outlining the budget gap, UMass President Marty Meehan told the UMass board that the four campuses plus the medical school collectively face an “unprecedented financial challenge” after balancing about $114 million in revenue losses last quarter.

The final $3.3 billion annual budget that trustees approved Monday, which calls for spending to be reduced by $171 million below fiscal 2020 levels, keeps tuition for the nearly 48,000 in-state undergraduate students frozen at last year’s levels.

Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis