The union representing City University of New York faculty is suing the system, arguing the layoffs of thousands of adjunct faculty and staff violate the terms of key coronavirus aid legislation.
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act dictates that colleges accepting relief funding must continue paying their employees and contractors "to the greatest extent practicable" during the health crisis.
CUNY's union says the staff reductions defy this provision. Faculty layoffs will likely continue as economic fallout from the pandemic ravages institutions' budgets.
The CARES Act earmarks about $14 billion for the higher education sector. Colleges were awarded their piece of aid funding based on their full-time enrollment, weighted heavily toward how many students received federal Pell Grants.
To accept the funds, colleges needed to sign an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that they'd comply with requirements of the law, including the condition that they continue paying employees "during the period of any disruptions or closures," the CARES Act states.
However, staff reductions at colleges have proven increasingly common as institutions anticipate steep declines in revenue. More than 220 colleges have laid off, furloughed or not renewed employee contracts because of the pandemic as of last week, according to a count by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
CUNY campuses were not immune to budget cuts. Officials there laid off around 2,800 adjunct instructors as of July 1, according to the lawsuit from the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress. Reductions are expected to continue and will be deep at certain schools. CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice plans to lay off more than 400 adjuncts, the lawsuit states, and CUNY's College of Staten Island said it intends to lay off more than 35% of its adjuncts.
The union argues CUNY could have used part of the estimated $251 million in CARES money it received to keep paying adjuncts and avoid layoffs. At least half of that funding must be passed along to students who were disadvantaged by the virus, but institutions have flexibility with the remainder.
In lieu of adjunct layoffs, the lawsuit notes, CUNY's high-ranking leaders could have taken pay cuts, as have other college executives. But they did not explore this option, the lawsuit states.
A CUNY spokesperson declined Education Dive's request for comment Monday.
The lawsuit likely won't succeed, said Scott Schneider, a higher ed law specialist and partner at firm Husch Blackwell.
While the CARES Act provision it relies on is "ambiguous," Schneider said, the Education Department hasn't stepped in when other institutions that accepted the funds announced staff cuts.
The CARES funding was likely meant to serve as a bridge until the pandemic died down, not to prevent layoffs entirely, he said.
A department spokesperson declined to say whether staff layoffs would constitute a violation of the CARES Act, citing the pending litigation against CUNY.
"Colleges are going to start announcing students won't return for the fall," Schneider said. "Layoffs are going to have to follow that. It will be a bloodbath unless there's some future bailout." Harvard University announced Monday courses would remain online for the coming academic year.
More than 60 New York city and state lawmakers and other public officials wrote to CUNY officials late last month, urging them to halt course cuts and layoffs. They noted the system hasn't shared publicly how it will spend the CARES funds dedicated to institutional costs associated with the virus.
"We ask you to defend CUNY at this critical moment in history, not find ways to dismantle it," they wrote.