Being paid to do nothing: ISU employees upset over IT restructuring
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As part of a restructuring effort in Iowa State University’s information technology services unit, ISU since May has been paying 19 employees to not work — telling them either to stay home or to come to work and sit in a room the employees have dubbed “Gitmo Iowa State.”
Through July 1 — covering 27 work days in May and June — Iowa State paid the nonworking employees more than $126,234, according to ISU spokesman John McCarroll. The employees were placed on the paid, nonworking status May 25 as part of a move that eliminated 23 positions from the ITS unit, which has about 175 employees total. Due to contractual obligations, the employees couldn’t be immediately terminated and must continue receiving wages.
Chief Information Officer Jim Kurtenbach sent an email to ITS employees in May explaining the cuts.
“This is the first time in over 10 years — since the merger that formed ITS — that we have stepped back to review our business processes, to examine how technology has affected our workload and workforce needs and to identify redundancies,” he wrote.
The 23 eliminated ITS positions include 11 employees who are classified as “professional and scientific” — or P&S — and covered by a “workforce reorganization policy.” They have been told to stay at home. The remaining 12 are considered “merit” workers covered by American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61. They report to campus each work day, but sit in a room for eight hours.
Affected employees held jobs in network support services, network engineering, classroom services and testing and evaluation, along with the solution center, cable plant and office of the CIO.
RESTRUCTURING OR PRIVITAZING?
Danny Homan, president of AFSCME Council 61 — which represents the “merit” employees — calls the situation, “an embarrassment.”
“It’s degrading to the employees. It’s shameful that Iowa State is treating long-term, dedicated employees the way they are because a former Republican legislator is trying to privatize the job.”
Kurtenbach, who initiated the restructuring of the ITS operations, is a former Republican lawmaker and former co-chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. He was appointed interim CIO in January 2015 and had the interim status lifted in June.
He said the reorganization aims to address concerns related to inefficiencies and redundancies.
Homan said Iowa State in some cases is paying “outside” workers to fill the voids.
“They are calling it a ‘restructuring,’ that is the word they are using, but it’s privatization,” he said. “It’s people hired from the outside to do the work that these people would have done.
“It’s an interesting shell game.”
McCarroll said the university hasn’t hired any company to perform “the specific jobs of the employees.”
“However, ITS works with firms, and there may be overlapping tasks that are being handled,” he said.
McCarroll confirmed 11 merit employees report to a campus room each day, “where they have the opportunity to complete applications for other jobs.” One of the cut merit employees applied and was chosen for an open P&S position.
Typically, in instances of reorganization, merit employees “continue to work in their current roles during the reassignment and bumping process,” McCarroll said. Information technology positions, however, require more delicate handling, and best industry practices call for employees in terminating positions to be cut off from system access, he said.
“ISU is working with AFSCME to address how to handle the employees that no longer have security access to continue in their roles,” McCarroll said. “These employees will remain ISU employees should they choose.”
But Iowa State can’t move them into different roles “until each individual’s options are determined, based on seniority,” McCarroll said. “Iowa State and AFSCME continue to work through implementation of the plan.”
Homan said meetings with Iowa State and the Board of Regents have been unproductive.
“At this point in time, nothing positive has happened,” he said. “At some point, this will end up as a grievance or litigation.”
Homan said he’s visited the room to which his nonworking employees have been relegated for eight hours a day.
“They said, ‘Welcome to Gitmo Iowa State,’ and I felt that was very appropriate,” he said.
Homan said his workers were told they could do custodial work — or something similar — rather than sit in the room.
“But they were not hired to go work on the lawn crew,” he said. “That’s not what they’re there for. They are IT specialists and highly trained.”
Of the 11 P&S employees included in the 23 cut positions, eight are on a nonworking status and three continue in a working status, according to McCarroll. Although they’re not covered by a union, P&S employees are covered by the Workforce Reorganization Policy for Professional and Scientific Employees, McCarroll said.
In instances of reorganization involving position elimination, according to that policy, “Written notification to affected employees shall be made with a minimum notice period of 90 calendar days.”
The eight P&S employees not allowed to work have been told to stay home.
Kurtenbach said the reorganization process has created a half dozen new positions, and eliminated P&S employees have been encouraged to apply.
“They may apply for any of them, and they were actually given the ability, I think it’s for 6 months, to apply and they’d be guaranteed that we’d look at their application,” he said.
If the employees don’t land another post at Iowa State by the end of the required 90-day notice period — Aug. 23 — their employment with the university comes to an end, Kurtenbach added.
‘This is nuts’
Michael Lowe, a computing information systems technician who started working at Iowa State in 1989, said he’s experienced a lack of communication since being ordered to stay home June 1. Even though Lowe is classified as a merit employee, he received a letter June 1 ordering him “not to report to work,” according to documents obtained by The Gazette.
The letter outlines “restrictions” on Lowe’s whereabouts while on administrative leave. It tells him to be available to his supervisor by phone and able to report to work within an hour.
“Failure to make yourself available may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination,” the letter states.
Lowe said he feels like he’s on house arrest and doesn’t know why he’s being treated differently than other merit employees.
Iowa State actually terminated Lowe in July 2015 for connecting personal devices to Iowa State’s virtual network — a system containing critical data, including social security numbers, payroll records, faculty research, student health information and student records.
But an administrative law judge later found Lowe was discharged for “no disqualifying reason,” as he had received permission and certification to attach his devices, wasn’t given enough time or proper notification to respond to the concerns, and had no history of verbal or written warnings.
The Board of Regents reached a settlement with Lowe in May, paying him $52,813 in back-pay and reinstating his employment. Lowe said he received the letter shortly thereafter.
“No one has ever talked to me about this, and I’ve had no opportunity to apply for any positions because no one has approached me and told me I could apply,” he said. “I’m sitting here waiting.”
Lowe has been in touch with union representatives asking them to look into the matter.
Adam Swihart, a union representative, told Lowe in an email his organization is working on the matter. He said if the union is unable to reach a solution, they’ll initiate a grievance process.
Lowe said he’ll launch his own grievance process if something doesn’t change soon.
“Within a month, if nothing positive comes out of this, I will be speaking to my lawyer,” he said. “Because this is nuts. I don’t know if I even have a job.”