Law360 (July 2, 2020, 3:58 PM EDT) -- The City University of New York illegally laid off thousands of adjunct faculty members despite getting over $251 million in federal funds to protect against the coronavirus pandemic's economic fallout, according to a lawsuit filed by a union representing the university's professional staff.
The Professional Staff Congress, which represents about 30,000 CUNY professional staff members, said in its complaint Wednesday that the university violated the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act by showing the door to 2,800 adjuncts during the pandemic.
"It is fair to say there would be no CUNY without adjunct faculty and staff," the union said in the complaint filed in New York federal court. "In spite of this, CUNY has chosen to repay the adjuncts' dedication and hard work with pink slips: it is laying off 2,800 of them."
By enacting the CARES Act in March, Congress sought to ward off as much financial despair as possible by requiring employers receiving federal funds to prove that they continued to pay workers "to the greatest extent possible," the union said, citing the act.
"CUNY cannot meet this burden," the union said. "CUNY's decision to lay off thousands of adjuncts is primarily motivated by its belief that it will suffer COVID-19 related funding reductions."
But the university system is projected to have $52 million in reserves by the end of the fiscal year despite the pandemic, the union said, citing $552 million allocated in New York state's 2020 budget and another $1.2 billion from New York City's budget passed Tuesday.
At the very least, CUNY has $132 million from the $251 million provided by the CARES Act and an additional $52 million in year-end surplus to pay the adjuncts, the union said, noting that the university didn't even consider other cost-cutting measures, like executive compensation reductions, before announcing the adjunct layoffs in May.
Adjunct faculty, who are hired to teach specific courses and paid based on the hours they spend teaching, are at the center of the university experience, the union said, noting how these workers often teach more classes and advise more students than other faculty members. They also put significant effort into transitioning to online learning when campuses across the city were shut down, according to the complaint.
PSC President Barbara Bowen told Law360 on Thursday that the only explicit requirement under the CARES Act for higher education is that institutions should, to the greatest extent possible, keep employees on payroll.
"With $132 million coming into CUNY from the CARES Act in institutional funds, there is no justification for laying off 2,800 people," she said. "Laying off 2,800 employees at a time when CUNY is especially crucial to the renewal of the economy of New York and the communities that rely on it sends a message that CUNY won't be there for them."
The suit calls for the immediate reinstatement of the adjuncts who lost their jobs and for the university to stop sidelining even more workers.
"In sum, the laid-off CUNY adjuncts will face a perfect storm of economic insecurity," the union said. "Many will be plunged into poverty, which Gandhi described as the 'worst kind of violence.'"
A spokesperson for CUNY declined to comment.
The workers are represented by Hanan B. Kolko and Kate M. Swearengen of Cohen Weiss & Simon LLP and Peter L. Zwiebach of the Professional Staff Congress.
Counsel information for CUNY could not be immediately determined.
The case is Professional Staff Congress/CUNY v. The City University of New York, case number 1:20-cv-05060, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
--Editing by Jack Karp.
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