College issues spring semester rebates, projects financial losses amid petitions over workers’ compensation

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While students received rebates for on campus expenditures in April, some have expressed concerns about the College's payment of workers and employees still in Williamsburg. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

Saturday, March 21, the College of William and Mary President’s Office notified students that rebates would be offered to compensate students for expenses incurred by campus meal plans and spring 2020 parking passes. The email came over a week after the College’s March 11 announcement to suspend in-person classes and university-sponsored travel due to COVID-19. In the several weeks following this decision, 6,611 College students received some form of rebate by April 10.

According to Vice President for Finance and Technology Amy Sebring, the process of issuing rebates began as soon as in-person university functions were suspended March 11, and continued until April 10, the final date that rebates were intended to be delivered nearly a month later. Sebring said that students received access to the College’s Student Rebate Web Portal April 2, which gave students information on their individual rebate amounts and dining dollar refunds.

“W&M provided rebates to all students with a university housing contract, meal plan and/or parking pass, regardless of the use of institutional aid,” Sebring said in an email. “That included RAs and HAs. These rebates were provided in recognition that certain aspects of the W&M experience cannot be provided under the pandemic conditions. Fortunately, the core academic mission of the university has been able to continue.”

“These rebates were provided in recognition that certain aspects of the W&M experience cannot be provided under the pandemic conditions. Fortunately, the core academic mission of the university has been able to continue.”

The March 21 email, sent by College President Katherine Rowe, stated that residential students would receive rebates based on their contracts, with an average amount entitling students to $1,200. Rowe’s notice explained that the rebate calculations reflected the university’s continuing obligations to support housing facilities and critical personnel.

For meal plan rebates, students received rebates dependent on the terms of the student’s selected plan as well as the College’s obligations to its contract with Sodexo. However, all dining dollar balances as of March 25 were reimbursed to students.

Students who used the Gold 19 or Freedom plans this semester received $460. Students with the Block 175 plan received $420, students with the Block 125 plan received $340 and students with the Block 100 plan received $270. For students with flexible commuter meal plans, students with the Commuter 50 plan received $100 whereas students with the Commuter 25 plan received only $50.

Fifty-four dollar parking rebates were issued to students who purchased a College parking decal. A year-long student parking decal purchased in August cost $375, and while one purchased in January usable only for the spring semester cost $131.

For rooms on Main Campus, all room types received a $1,200 rebate. For New Campus doubles and triples, students also received a $1,200 rebate, but students in New Campus singles received a slightly higher $1,300 rebate. Students in graduate housing or in Tribe Square received the highest rebate of $1,350. Additionally, resident assistants received $1,200.

Some students with urgent financial situations received rebates prior to April 10, an objective that Sebring stressed was difficult for the College to complete.

“One of the biggest challenges we faced was in getting rebates into the hands of students with urgent needs who required immediate financial assistance to relocate when dorms closed on March 25th,” Sebring said. “We processed 130 rebates before April 10.”

Fulfilling obligations incurred by fixed costs — expenses that must be paid regardless of the amount of services provided — played a significant role in the College’s decisions regarding residential and dining rebates.

“Approximately 45% of the university’s budget is fixed or difficult to modify in the short term,” Sebring said. “Fixed costs include debt service, lease and rent payments, insurance, utilities and contractual services.”

Sebring said that financial aid and scholarship awards follow specific budgetary timelines and that those funds must be allocated to the intended recipients.

“Support for student financial aid is awarded typically at the start of the fiscal year and scholarships are awarded often with donor-restricted dollars,” Sebring said. “Given that financial aid remains one of the university’s top budget priorities and scholarships one of its fundraising goals, we want to fiercely protect those commitments not only for this fiscal year but going forward.”

Even though students have not been on campus since March, the College has had to maintain many facilities management expenditures, some of which require significant financial support.

“The functions of Facilities Management necessary to operate and maintain the campus, while slightly reduced during periods of limited on-campus activities, do continue,” Chief Facilities Officer Van Dobson said in an email. “The buildings need ongoing maintenance to remain operational and utility services are required to keep buildings safe, secure, and functional for activities that are ongoing.”

Dobson explained that multiple systems that protect and regulate the College’s operations, including heating and air conditioning systems, fire protection systems and access controls, must operate 24/7.

“During this particular time we are also seeing a need for increased cleaning to ensure a safe current and future campus environment,” Dobson said. “And there are the basics — the grass continues to grow, mail continues to arrive, rain continues to fall, and the wind continues to blow — all of which keep us busy.”

Regarding the wellbeing and safety of the Facilities Management staff, Dobson said that new procedures are in place to prevent the spread of the virus while performing necessary functions. Dobson referenced the College’s online resources for employees, which includes support documents for current employees about working on campus during the pandemic, hand washing guidelines and safety information videos.

“During this particular time we are also seeing a need for increased cleaning to ensure a safe current and future campus environment. And there are the basics — the grass continues to grow, mail continues to arrive, rain continues to fall, and the wind continues to blow — all of which keep us busy.”

“FM staff have settled into adjusted routines with an emphasis on supporting limited on-campus activities and preparing the campus for fall semester,” Dobson said. “In particular, staff have received additional training and guidance, are following CDC guidelines, and have received appropriate personal protection equipment.”

Director of Auxiliary Services Cindy Glavas said the revenue model and fixed costs have impacted Auxiliary Services, a department which oversees the College Bookstore, Williamsburg Campus Child Care, the Tennis Center, Parking & Transportation and Dining Services, among other functions.

“Auxiliary Services must be a self-sustaining operation. W&M receives no state funding for these services,” Glavas said. “The bulk of the revenue to support those services come from the students, faculty and staff who receive those services. Fixed costs are a significant portion of our business, and include debt service for facilities and equipment investments, facilities maintenance and contractual obligations that run 12 months of the year.”

Also imperative to the College’s functional operation are university administrators, faculty members and subcontractors, including dining services workers who are primarily employed through Sodexo.

According to an April 24 email from the President’s Office, the College projects between $13 million and $32 million losses through August 2020, specifically through lost revenue from study abroad opportunities, summer programs, athletics, housing, dining and parking. In addition to these losses, the College also described its anticipation of new expenses for software and technology for remote teaching, higher costs related to facilities cleaning and supplies and increased emergency support expenditures to support students. To combat these challenges, the College has placed a freeze on all new hiring except for “mission-critical positions” through the summer and will limit and reduce non-essential spending.

According to Sebring, employment cuts are not being utilized by the university to mitigate ongoing financial losses.

“No university employees have been furloughed or laid off,” Sebring said. “The university’s goal is to keep all employees working through telework assignments, online training opportunities, load shift assignments (helping either office mates or individuals in different departments), or on-campus working under OSHA and CDC compliant practices.”

Sebring also said that all university employees are receiving their regular salary or wage, with some employees receiving wages under Virginia’s Public Health Emergency Leave extended Family Medical Leave Act, with compliance with the federal government’s guidelines on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Dining Services workers are not considered university employees since they are employed on a contractual basis through Sodexo. Sebring said that all Sodexo-operated dining locations on campus have been closed, in accordance with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s executive orders and the closure of on-campus housing March 25.

“Currently, the frontline staff from those operations are furloughed under Sodexo’s Temporary Unit Closing guidelines,” Dining Services Resident District Manager Jason Aupied said in an email. “Wherever possible, Sodexo is reassigning staff to other Sodexo sites as many partners shift operations. Also, we are promoting the use of Sodexo staff with various parts of the supply chain that may need extra help (grocery stores, warehouses, etc.). In instances where team members are not able to be temporarily reassigned, Sodexo is doing all it can to help by providing the option to utilize any Paid Time Off that they have accrued, or would accrue by the end of the year, ensuring medical benefits will remain active for the duration that the employees would typically work, extending their sick leave related to COVID-19 for up to 21 days for all part-time and full-time staff, and facilitating unemployment claims, as well as, other applicable measures following the passage of the CARES Act.”

Aupied also said that Sodexo’s newly created Global Employee Relief Program aims to offer some financial support to employees whose units have closed temporarily to maintain these employees’ health and dental insurance.

“In the U.S., the Relief Program will pay the employee portion of the health and dental plan premiums for the months of April and May for eligible, frontline full-time hourly employees if their unit has temporarily closed due to COVID-19 related circumstances,” Aupied said. “Eligible, frontline full-time hourly employees who have waived coverage in Sodexo’s health and dental insurance programs, will receive a one-time payment of $150.”

According to Aupied, Sodexo has furloughed about 300 frontline Dining Services employees on “temporary unit closing.” He said that there were many factors preventing a comment on the holistic wellbeing of all workers.

“Each employee will have a different response to this pandemic based on their personal and family obligations, health and environment, Aupied said. “It would be unfair to those individuals to make a blanket statement.”

Some members of the College community have mobilized over concerns that subcontracted workers are not receiving adequate pay. An organization called the WM Dining Workers Fund has raised over $17,700 out of a $30,000 goal since its creation April 9, attracting 292 donors on GoFundMe as of May 4 in order to support workers that are struggling without pay.

Founded by Zoe LeMenestrel ’20, Athena Benton ’21 and professor Francis Tanglao Aguas, this organization will be giving $250 to each applicant, which was calculated by equally distributing the funds. The fund also issued a petition April 22 addressed to Rowe and Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration Sam Jones, demanding that the university financially support dining workers through the end of their contracts.

The petition criticizes the university’s lack of support and its lack of pressure on Sodexo to provide to greater benefits for its workers. It uses the terms “laid off” and “furloughed” interchangeably, although Aupied clarified that these employees have been furloughed as opposed to terminated. These workers’ regular contracts normally would have ended in May at the end of the spring semester.

“Sodexo is content to let universities take the blame, and universities are happy to blame the situation on Sodexo while not holding them accountable. This “blame game” situation is enabled by the college’s decision to contract in the first place. Contracting out dining services is a way for them to cut costs without being held liable for the consequences.”

“Currently, both the university and Sodexo are washing their hands of the responsibility to pay workers,” Le Menestrel said in an email. “Sodexo is content to let universities take the blame, and universities are happy to blame the situation on Sodexo while not holding them accountable. This “blame game” situation is enabled by the college’s decision to contract in the first place. Contracting out dining services is a way for them to cut costs without being held liable for the consequences. We believe that because William and Mary has put dining workers in a position where they can be exploited and abandoned by forcing them to work for a contractor, they should take on the burden of providing them with relief.”

Regarding the Dining Services workers’ awareness of Sodexo’s Global Employee Relief Program, Le Menestrel reiterated the terms of the award amounts and said that the relief would not cover any other kind of living expenses.

The petition cites the College’s endowment as one reason why the College should have the means to support Dining Services workers. It also identifies that, through the Federal CARES Act’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, the College qualifies for $3.95 million in funding, 50 percent of which is unrestricted and should be directed to the university’s coronavirus response.

“They are receiving $3.9 million from the federal government for coronavirus response purposes, and while 50% must go directly to students, we believe the other 50% should go directly to workers,” Le Menestrel said. “As of right now, the university has refused to explain where this other 50% is going. This does not preclude them from also leveraging their contract with Sodexo to pressure them to pay workers in full, but workers cannot wait for lengthy negotiations to take place. They have gone without pay since mid-March and need relief immediately.”

College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet said that the outpour of support from students is characteristic of the College’s students.

“The support efforts we are seeing from our students are not surprising,” Clavet said in an email. “William & Mary is a close-knit community and our students are known for their caring nature exemplified through their volunteerism throughout our community, across the country and abroad. They have a history of supporting those who work here as well as each other. In addition to the independent Go Fund Me page, which is not sponsored or administered by the university, more than 50 students opted to donate their housing and dining rebates and parking refunds back to William & Mary in support of students in need. Those contributions totaled more than $30,000. The students’ generosity and concern are inspiring.”

Clavet said that university employees have not experienced adverse employment effects as the university attempts to respond to the pandemic.

“Thankfully, university employees have not been furloughed or laid off thus far,” Clavet said. “The university continues to fully fund the benefits outlined by state directives on Public Health Emergency Leave and the federal government’s guidelines on the Families First Coronavirus Response and extended Family Medical Leave acts. Through telework and load shift assignments, our goal remains to keep as many university employees working as possible for a long as possible.”

Clavet clarified several points related to the petition’s rationale. Firstly, she said that Dining Services workers are employed by Sodexo, not the College. Secondly, she stated that the College, as of May 4, has not received any funds from the CARES Act and anticipates that the first allocation from those funds will be those restricted for direct student aid. Thirdly, she explained how endowment funds and donations are used by the university.

“When a donor gives to an endowment, the principal gift isn’t spent; it’s invested,” Clavet said. “The annual income from that investment is available for the institution, but its use is almost always restricted.”

According to the University Advancement website about the William & Mary Foundation, the College’s endowment has a spending rate that ranges from 3.75 to 4.75 percent of the fund’s average market value from the previous five years

“William & Mary Endowment Funds cannot just be ‘redirected’ to support the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Clavet said. “That vast majority of endowment assets that benefit the university are restricted in purpose and cannot be redirected.”

As conversations surrounding the College’s treatment of workers develop, SA President Anthony Joseph ’21 communicated to SA representatives last week that he is continuing to convey student concerns to administration. He also said that he had received a confirmation from the College that the university has committed to not furloughing or firing workers, and reiterated the administration’s attempts to hire workers for temporary, alternative work on campus conducted with appropriate social distancing protocols in place.

This is an evolving story and may be updated. This story was last updated Monday, May 4 at 10 p.m.