Illinois lawmakers said there is little they can do to prevent 260 students at Northeastern Illinois University from losing their jobs unless the 20 months-long political stalemate over a budget ends.
As first reported by WBEZ, Northeastern might be forced to let go of hundreds of student workers because of a new state rule put in place to protect full-time employees at state universities and colleges, which have struggled financially during the state’s budget impasse.
Northeastern officials said the rule requires student workers to be cut before any full-time civil service employee are forced to take unpaid days off. The university is currently negotiating with some of the labor unions that represent university employees about starting furlough days in the middle of March.
While other universities have previously enacted furlough days for their employees, Northeastern is believed to be the first Illinois school to be pursuing furloughs that will trigger this new rule.
“I feel the students’ pain,” said State Rep. Chris Welch (D-Hillside) chairman of the House’s Higher Education Committee. “I think it’s just tragic that they and the entire university system are going through the things they’re going through.”
Welch said he agreed with his Republican colleague, state Rep. Tom Demmer (R-Dixon), that the best legislative recourse to keep the students from losing their jobs is to finally pass a state budget.
While Illinois has gone almost two years without a budget, universities have received no state money since Jan. 1, when a temporary budget expired.
“We’ve seen some providers close their doors. We’ve seen people be laid off. We’ve seen furloughs be taken in different places. This is what we need to avoid,” Demmer said. “Students don’t deserve to have their employment taken away because we can’t, in Springfield, come together and negotiate a budget.”
Demmer is a member of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, a bipartisan, bicameral group that reviews rules like the one that could force Northeastern’s student workers to lose their jobs.
Both Demmer and Welch agreed that the best shot at reaching a budget solution is currently being negotiated in the state Senate. They both said they hadn’t heard of any recent talks of a short-term spending plan for universities.
State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) also sits on the administrative rules committee and has been involved in budget negotiations with Senate Republicans.
“I’m very sorry that they are a calamity, a casualty of this budget impasse. It’s not their fault,” Harmon said. “I wish that we could snap our fingers and put a budget in place that fully funds higher ed, but that’s gonna require cooperation from the governor and from other members of the General Assembly reluctant to tackle that obligation.”
Northeastern President Richard Helldobler said in statement that he hopes to prevent student workers from losing their jobs. He also urged state lawmakers to find a way to pass a budget.
“Northeastern Illinois University will continue to explore our options with this rule, but let this crisis serve as yet another critical reminder of the damage being done by the ongoing budget impasse,” he said. “We must work together to pass a budget and fund our state universities with adequate appropriations.”
The administrative rule was negotiated with labor unions that represent full-time employees at universities. It’s designed to make sure Illinois universities are saving money everywhere they can before making their full-time employees take unpaid days off — or lay off employees and put entire academic departments in further jeopardy.
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics. Follow him @tonyjarnold.