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June 25, 2009

Watkins shares goals for her presidency

Newly elected president of the Staff Association Council Gwendolyn L. Watkins brings a wealth of experience to the position, including more than two decades of service on the staff council in a wide range of capacities.

She has served SAC as vice president for steering, treasurer and chair of its program and planning committee.

She also has coordinated the SAC-sponsored Pitt Kennywood Day for the past 17 years, and was instrumental in establishing the SAC Endowed Book Fund for Children of Staff.

Watkins, who is coordinator of special events in the Office of Community Relations, has been a Pitt staff member for 39 years.

She is a recipient of the 2008 Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Community Service. More recently, she was recognized as one of “12 phenomenal women” in the winter 2009 issue of Pitt magazine, where she appears on the cover.

Following her election to a two-year term at the June 17 SAC meeting, Watkins discussed her concerns on behalf of staff and some of her goals with University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

UNIVERSITY TIMES: What are your main issues? What are the biggest problems for staff?

WATKINS: I think the biggest concerns for staff right now are, of course, our salaries and the economy. I’m concerned about what’s going to happen in 2010 as we look forward to getting raises.

In this economy right now, costs are not going down, they’re going up. You have to make a lot of concessions when utilities go up, the cost of living goes up, gas is going up, food is ridiculous. It’s a normal concern: What will our salaries be like?

Do you think the economy and other factors are causing low morale among staff?

I wouldn’t say that our morale is low. There’s a concern about our salaries, but I don’t want to make a broad statement. There’s a difference between concerns, legitimate concerns, and saying the morale is low.

Do you foresee people getting laid off as a result of the struggling economy?

We’ve heard nothing about large layoffs. The administration is working hard to not have that happen, and they’ve told us there will be no large layoffs. Any layoffs that are occurring right now are the normal attrition that you would see through a hiring year, people coming and going in the normal course of events.

You’ve voiced your endorsement of Pitt’s shared governance system. Could you elaborate?

We have a good working relationship with the chancellor and Human Resources. Their doors are not shut to staff and I’m real thankful for that. We can bring our concerns to them. After all, they won’t know unless we communicate our concerns. When we communicate it makes for a better working relationship.

And the administration is open to us. It’s a good thing, and not every place can say that.

On the other hand, a consequence of that communication at times is the insistence by the administration on confidentiality. Is that confidentiality inhibiting communication efforts? Is it over-used?

Confidentiality goes along with the territory. When you’re a SAC member, you’re a member of a committee and when they say it’s confidential, you have to go along with that. If you feel you can’t then maybe you need to step back.

It’s a hard question, because it comes down to each individual issue.

We have a similar situation with our closed sessions. It’s not necessarily that we have something to hide. But in certain cases, staff need the freedom to be able to say something that won’t be repeated or attributed to them.

What do you think of Pitt’s employee benefits package? Would you advocate any changes or additions?

I know that staff have a concern with our health benefits and what our co-pays are. And also what we pay for our health care, our premiums. Benefits [committee] is looking into some things along those lines, although I don’t want to be specific at this time.

What I can say is I’m interested in making health benefits fair and equitable. If someone were making $100,000, compared to someone who is making $20,000, we could have some kind of tier [payment] system. I’d like to see that happen.

If I’m only making, say, $20,000 or $21,000 and I’ve got to pay $165 or $180 for myself and my family on health benefits, that’s over $2,000 that’s taken out of my [yearly] salary. So now my salary is reduced to $19,000, not to mention the taxes that have to be taken out.

Some consideration should be made to having a tier [payment system]. We’d like to look into that further during my term as president.

SAC has representation on the University’s medical advisory board. Do you intend to bring the suggestion of a tiered payment system to that board?

Yes. I have not been on that committee before, but I will be on that committee now, and that would be the forum to bring that suggestion up. And in our SAC benefits committee.

SAC has proposed that the University offer non-monetary alternatives in lieu of salary raises. Do you support that idea?

Oh, yes. Because we’re not getting the monetary [recompense], it just helps morale since it says, “We appreciate what you’ve done, so we’re going to give you this day off before Thanksgiving,” or whenever they decide.

I believe that a satisfied employee is the best working one, the most efficient one and makes the most healthy employee. When I enjoy my work, you’re going to get the best out of me.

Are there other ways to compensate for the salary freeze?

There could be a number of things related to benefits. Or it could be flex-time — that is, departments at least considering that more. Now each department is run differently. In some offices flex-time doesn’t work well. We know that some people are on flex-time with the permission of the administrator. But departments don’t publicize that. That’s another element of confidentiality. It depends on the department.

And I understand that, because flex-time has to be left to the discretion of the department head. How can you tell a department head what to do with their staff? Now we can always ask as SAC, and, as individuals, we can put in for it. So, I think the issue is still on the burner. We’re still looking into it.

But from what I understand HR does not make demands, does not tell department heads what to do in their departments. The department heads give direction to the supervisors and things are handed down that way.

Does Pitt need more child care facilities? Is the shortage of available spaces hurting retention of staff?

We have not presently pushed that. It would be something that benefits [committee] could look into.

I understand the waiting list at the [University] Child Development Center is really long. The center is an excellent place, but it’s only so big.

Of course, a larger Child Development Center means you have to have more staff and that means more money. So that has to be a consideration.

You might say the same thing with the athletic fields that they’re building [near Trees Hall] and recruiting students. Those fields have to be conducive to attract people who want to come to the University. It makes sense.

So, yes, I could see having SAC look into [child care issues]. Maybe to work with the Senate’s benefits committee.

That would go through the normal channels of the SAC benefits committee — doing research and maybe making a proposal.

Two issues were tabled by SAC committees pending the outcome of the recent elections: member absenteeism, and SAC exceeding its mandated membership maximum. Any early thoughts on those issues?

I’m concerned about the general attendance at SAC meetings and the subcommittee meetings. We’re going to ask people to reconsider, to re-evaluate their commitment. If they can’t commit the time, we understand. We all get paid to do our work first and foremost. If you decide that you can’t spare the time, let us know. Then it will leave an opening for other people to come in.

If enough people decide they can’t commit, then we may be [under our maximum] membership.

The associate members cannot vote for six months. When you have matriculation and people go off SAC, you can let one person in by chronological order, according to when they were accepted [for membership]. That person would be next in line.

What we try to do is look and see if we have a person from that same department, to keep their representation steady.

But we haven’t made any decisions on this. If we did expand the membership, the bylaws would have to be changed. We will be looking at that and making sure we’re doing things that are consistent with the bylaws.

Are there ways to get regional staff more involved in SAC issues?

We’re going to look into videoconferencing our [monthly] meetings to the regionals. That way, they wouldn’t have to travel here and they could still be more involved.

But it’s a financial issue. That’s the key. We can look into it, and we will. Our past experience is that it is too expensive. We’ll go and ask about the feasibility. We will contact CSSD (Computing Services and Systems Development).

If we find that it’s cost-prohibitive, we’ll still continue what we’re doing. We do communicate with them, email, calls. We share ideas. Mostly it’s on an issue-to-issue basis, or if we’re doing something like our spring and fall assemblies, we make them aware of that.

And we have the Council of Campuses (representatives of all five campus staff groups meet), which we do every year. It would be nice if we could do something like that twice a year, but it has to be cost-effective.

I probably need to send a letter to the branch campuses to encourage them to let us know what they’re doing. And, of course, if they have any concerns to let us know them.

We can try to keep in contact more. And I need to let them know what we’re doing. It’s both sides. But with travel, it has to be cost-effective, so I understand they can’t come down to Oakland.

If it seems like many of the staff issues recur, what can you do to keep SAC from getting stale?

Change is always good and I’m happy we have been getting so many new members. I really want to encourage members of SAC to participate. The members of SAC are very gifted, very talented, and we want to use their skills. Don’t be shy, come on in. It can’t be one person to do this effectively. We have to be working together.

When you first become a member, it can be overwhelming. But get on those committees and offer what you have to offer. Under our bylaws, you have to be on at least one committee. Get on a committee, and if it doesn’t suit you, try another committee. You don’t have to stay there. It’s a volunteer thing. When I’m volunteering for something I want to be happy with what I volunteered for.

Are you looking forward to your new role?

Yes, definitely. I’ve been an officer, but being president is a little different. Everybody is entitled to an opinion, but under our bylaws, the only person who speaks on behalf of SAC is the president. That’s an important responsibility. If it wasn’t that way, you’d have chaos.

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