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September 12, 1996

This layoff has a happy ending

Even Charlotte Winfield describes her story as a textbook example of how to terminate an employee the right way. Winfield, a Secretary II at Pitt for the past seven years, was one of three staff members in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) dean's office who lost their jobs in a recent restructuring of the arts and sciences administration.

"First of all, it was no big surprise," she said. "We [arts and sciences personnel] had been told about the reorganization. Nobody knew exactly what was going to happen, but we all knew something was going to happen. We all knew some positions would be cut." On the afternoon of Aug. 8, Winfield found out that her job was among the ones that would be eliminated at the end of that month.

One by one, the three dean's office staff members were called in to meet with FAS Associate Dean Richard Howe and Carolyn Dillon of Pitt's Human Resources office. "Dick Howe had to tell me the bad news, and I think he looked more upset than I did," Winfield said. "Carolyn did most of the talking. She mapped out what my options were and gave me a severance agreement to look over. She told me I should review this agreement with a lawyer." Ron Frisch, interim associate vice chancellor for Human Resources, said the University's guideline on staff severance agreements is to grant a terminated employee one week's pay for each year the employee has worked here. But the minimum severance payment is 12 weeks' salary; the maximum is 26 weeks' salary, he said.

Human Resources adopted that guideline July 1, and some units that laid off employees prior to July 1 (for example, the College of General Studies) did not follow the same severance package formula, Frisch said. He also acknowledged that the formula could be unfair to long-term staff who get terminated before reaching their 12th year of Pitt employment.

"Theoretically," Frisch noted, "this guideline provides the same severance payment to the staff member who's worked here for one month and the staff member who's worked here for 11 years and 51 weeks." That's why, Frisch said, he plans to review the current severance policy with Staff Association Council leaders later this month.

Besides getting her proposed severance agreement, Winfield on Aug. 8 was handed lists of available University staff jobs plus a list of openings in FAS specifically. After Winfield finished meeting with Howe and Dillon, benefits specialists from Human Resources came into the meeting room to discuss Winfield's TIAA-CREF retirement account and other fringe benefits concerns.

"They told me my options for reinvesting my TIAA-CREF money, they answered my questions and told me about other agencies outside the University that could help in getting me employment," Winfield said. "I didn't have any sense of being rushed or talked down to." Winfield pointed out that she was well-prepared for the trauma of termination, being single and having gone through what she remembers as a horrific round of layoffs at her former employer, Koppers, during the late 1980s.

"I'm sure there were a lot of other people in FAS who felt more apprehensive and upset than I did because they have children and families to worry about. But I only have me to take care of, and I know how to take care of me," Winfield said.

"Also, my father taught me, 'Don't worry about things you don't have control over,' and this was something I had no control over. At one point during our meeting, Dick Howe looked at me — he was very concerned — and he said, 'Are you all right?' And I said, 'I'm fine.' I was trying to make him feel better!" It helps too, of course, that Winfield's story has a happy ending. Before the end of August she landed a Secretary II job in the political science department. Her starting date there was Sept. 1.

"I feel like I've been blessed," she said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 2

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