Wintersteen, top leaders answer P&S Council questions about crisis

President Wendy Wintersteen and other university leaders met virtually with the Professional and Scientific Council at its April 2 meeting, fielding questions about how the university's response to the coronavirus pandemic is affecting employees.

Here are some highlights from comments by Wintersteen and other ISU leaders, who answered questions for about 70 minutes during the council meeting held via Webex.

Adjusted expectations

In an opening statement, Wintersteen acknowledged the strain faculty and staff are under -- whether performing essential duties on campus or working from home, in many cases while taking care of children -- and emphasized an accommodating approach to navigating the unprecedented change. The temporary but indefinite disruption in how employees work is bound to impact productivity, she said.  

"I think we have to understand this is a different time, and there is a different set of expectations given the challenges we're facing," Wintersteen said.

There are some signs that managers have taken that advice to heart. An employee survey conducted the week after spring break found that 84% of respondents feel supported by their supervisor, interim vice president for university human resources (UHR) Kristi Darr said.

Staying on the job

Whenever possible, Wintersteen said, university leaders want to keep employees on the job. Though there will be situations where that isn't possible, maintaining an active workforce is a "guiding philosophy" for Iowa State's response, she said.

"We want work to be available to all of our employees," she said.

For employees who no longer have work in their usual position, a short-term reassignment to a unit that needs additional help is possible. Information about what units have those opportunities isn't being collected campuswide yet -- but might be in the future -- and senior vice presidents have had some preliminary discussion about reassignments, Wintersteen said.

"We would hope that we all would be thinking about this in unique and innovative ways," she said.

Pay increases

With a projected drop in enrollment, fiscal year 2021 already was set to be a tight budget year. Budget plans were being drafted with reductions from 3% to 5%, with an aim to reallocate $24 million to $28 million. That was before COVID-19 caused widespread economic pain.

The financial aspect of the crisis will complicate efforts to increase salaries for faculty and staff for FY21, a discussion that continues but must take into consideration the economic stress and cash flow issues some units are experiencing, Wintersteen said.

"At this point, I'm not very positive about the opportunity to do even a minimal pay increase on July 1, but we're going to continue having conversations with our Faculty Senate and our P&S Council before we come to that final decision," she said.

How long?

It's the question that looms large at Iowa State and everywhere else: How long will this go on? The truth is, no one knows, said Jonathan Wickert, senior vice president and provost. But he's not optimistic about a speedy return to standard operations.

"As hard as it is to say this, I think we should assume that we're going to be working remotely and going to be working in this mode for a longer period of time rather than a shorter period of time," Wickert said.

Employees who need to retrieve a computer or other items from their campus workstation for their home office should talk to their supervisor and make it happen, he said.

Darr urged employees to map out how they would handle a variety of future scenarios.  

"I think you need to make a plan for what matters to you and how to make sure your personal and professional life are taken care of. Just as the university is going through multiple plans, we really encourage you to tap into resources and have a strategy," she said.

In an April 8 message to faculty and staff, Wintersteen announced all university events will be canceled, postponed or moved online through May 31

Children on board

Because K-12 schools are closed at least through the end of April and the Iowa Department of Human Services is recommending that parents working from home avoid sending their children to child care providers, many faculty and staff are caring for children while working from home.

Wintersteen called for "exhibiting grace" for parents providing child care by setting realistic expectations and encouraged employees to communicate concerns to their supervisor.

"We know it really would be impossible to expect that everything would be operating at 100% under these circumstances," she said.

A temporary expansion of leave programs for virus-related absences created under a federal paid sick leave law enacted in mid-March provides some options for parents who are caring for children whose school or child care provider are closed. That bill was signed into law just hours after the state Board of Regents announced it was relaxing some systemwide policies to give regent universities more flexibility to consider adjustments to leave policies. HR representatives from all the regent schools worked with the board on its temporary policy, which permitted but didn't mandate the changes.

"We are all allowed to be unique and consider what might be best for our institution," Darr said.

UHR staff continue to look at leave policy options, Darr said. A group also is preparing additional resources for faculty and staff who are working while providing child care, based on feedback from the employee survey.

Class/comp review

Implementation of the classification/compensation review for P&S employees is delayed slightly, said Emma Mallarino Houghton, UHR director of classification and compensation.

HR delivery staff and managers were to meet in March to link all P&S staff to one of the 569 job titles in the newly developed, market-based system for classification and compensation. Because some of those meetings were postponed due to the COVID-19 response, the timeline will shift a bit later to make sure employees and managers not involved in the linking meetings have time to request a review, Mallarino Houghton said.

As part of its monthly seminar series, council is holding a live webinar with Mallarino Houghton about the class/comp review on April 14 (2-3 p.m.). Access the livestream online. A recording will be posted to Learn@ISU about one week after the event.

Federal relief

The $2 trillion federal COVID-19 aid package identified $14 billion in relief for higher education institutions and support for coronavirus research, shifting instruction online, emergency student grants, and flexibility for student work-study programs and federal loan repayment.

University leaders are studying the bill and working with Iowa's congressional delegation to find out more details, Wickert said.

"It's too early to know exactly how much that will be and what it will look like," he said of federal aid.  

Senior leader self-care

Asked what ISU senior leaders were doing to ensure their own well-being during this stressful time, Wintersteen said she encourages her leadership team to find some measure of work-life balance during the COVID-19 crisis. Senior leaders try to inject levity into meetings and exchange recommendations for end-of-the-day Netflix choices, she said.

"We're a very supportive group," she said.

Still, there's no denying that finding the balance is more difficult than ever, Wickert said.

"Let's face it, normal boundaries of work-life have completely been lost here. It's impossible to keep that normal rhythm and that normal separation of our work at the university and our life at home," he said.

That makes project prioritization and finding time to disconnect from work all the more important, he said.