Ohio University layoffs could mean a difficult future for workers

Published: May. 7, 2020 at 7:26 PM EDT
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Dakota Balch has been a maintenance and custodial worker at Ohio University for about a year.

On May 1, the 22-year-old was one of 140 union employees who were told by the university that they would not have a job come May 31.

“We all kind of had this feeling that it was going to happen but nobody could say for sure,” Balch said. “It was kind of out of the blue. We were at work one day, and the next day we got our abolishment notice.”

Balch and hundreds of others filled parking lots on OU’s campus Wednesday night to protest the layoffs. Protesters then drove through uptown Athens honking their car horns and showing off the many signs taped to their cars.

Before he started working at OU, Balch tried to get a job there for a significant amount of time. He said the university is one of the few well-paying employers that offer good benefits in Athens County. He said it’s the same situation for many Athenians.

“It’s their lifeline," he said. "It’s their income, all the businesses around there, you’re talking housing, you’re talking restaurants everything relies on the university.”.

Now, 140 fewer union workers are able to rely on the university. But Balch said he’s in better shape than some of the others who were laid off from their jobs.

He has youth and a background in carpentry on his side. He also has call-back rights for the next year if Ohio University finds money in its budget to support his job. After that it’s like he was “never there.”

In the meantime, he’s looking for other jobs - ones that he isn’t sure other university employees can get.

“Hopefully we all get our jobs back, and if not pray for those who are not going to be able and immediately get a job," he said. "There’s a lot of people that are 50- and 60-years-old who have been there for 10 or 15 years, and they’re not going to be able to go and get another job."

“Employers aren’t going to look at those 50- and 60-year-old people and be like ‘I want them on my crew,’ because they can’t guarantee they’re going to have an employee for 30 years.”

He said other workers have never known anything but their university work and aren’t equipped for other good jobs.

“Being laid off like this is going to hurt a ton of people,” Balch said.

In statements released to WTAP and online by the university, officials said the majority of OU’s operating costs go to employees, and in the wake of many financial issues, cuts had to be made.

The coronavirus has cost the university a fortune, with roughly $18 million in refunds going to some students for the spring semester.

In addition, the state of Ohio announced budget cuts for public universities for the 2021 school year. That's coupled with the fact that the university is facing enrollment challenges.

With that in mind, protesters on Wednesday night attacked excessive spending by the university. In particular, they focused on the salaries of sports coaches and the university’s president, Duane Nellis.

WTAP reached out to Ohio University for comment. A representative of the university released the following statement.

“The realities of the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on all industries, including higher education institutions, has not left Oho University immune. Recently announced state budget cuts to Ohio's public universities for this fiscal year, refunds provided to our students during Spring Semester, and enrollment trends compound the budget challenges the University was working to address even prior to the pandemic. The difficult decisions being made are based on many factors including the availability of work, reduced demand for programs and services, and reduced funding available. We take no pleasure in making these difficult decisions, but the reality is the majority of the institution’s operational costs are in its employees, and we must address the largest share of our budget while we simultaneously strategically plan for the future of our great University. These decisions are not made lightly or without the weight of the very real and direct impact on people – people with whom we have worked alongside and who are valued colleagues. Because of this care and concern for them, their families and our community, we have held off these difficult decisions for as long as we could. We will do all we can to support our employees who have been impacted.”