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Davis, California

Saturday, May 18, 2024

UC Davis Counseling Services staff at odds with SHCS leadership over summer furloughs

Six counselors claim furloughs are unprecedented since 2008 recession, SHCS leadership says furloughs are normal and in no way related to COVID-19 budgetary concerns

All six counselors who agreed to an interview spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to protect themselves — and their jobs — from any type of retaliation. They are referred to as Counselors A, B, C, D, E and F. 

“I think there [are] some strange things going on with the money trail,” Counselor D said.

Leadership within UC Davis’ Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) recently and unexpectedly decided to furlough 37 employees within the department. During a global recession, furloughs are to be expected — yet university leaders adamantly deny that the furloughs are COVID-19-related. Even so, losses to revenue are to be expected — yet the student fees that fund SHCS were collected at the beginning of the year, pre-pandemic, and have been unaffected.

“Where’s the money?” Counselor D asked.

Budgetary explanations don’t add up

Citing uncertainties concerning what SHCS’s budget holds for the future, the SHCS Executive Team decided in April to furlough 37 partial-year employees. As SHCS is composed of a medical and counseling team, the 37 partial-year employees taking one- or two-month furloughs include eight counselors plus one supervisor, who is also a counselor, as well as employees from the medical team.

The furlough notices, given on April 9 and 10, came as a shock to staff, as department leaders had told employees throughout March that furloughs were not going to be necessary, according to all six counselors who spoke to The California Aggie for this story.

Partial-year employees have 10- or 11-month appointments with the expectation that they work during the academic year and not during the summer months, when there is less student demand.

For the SHCS medical team, spring is typically a busy — and profitable — time of year. Before students graduate, some seek to fill prescriptions, such as birth control, or get a new pair of glasses while they still have insurance, Executive Director of Health and Wellness Margaret Walter explained. And COVID-19 has directly impacted projected springtime income, with fewer students seeking out, and paying for, these types of services.

Photo Courtesy Margaret Walter

A slideshow presentation created by Walter and given to counseling staff shows a breakdown of SHCS’s operational costs pre- versus post-COVID-19. SHCS shows a $1.8 million estimated deficit.

That estimate, according to Walter, is based on two main factors: 

  • Money spent on expenses that were not initially budgeted for: personal protective equipment, rental tents set up in the SHCS parking lot for outdoor COVID-19 testing and iPad purchases for clinicians to provide telehealth visits
  • A reduction in the number of appointments requested and offered as well as a reduction in the number of prescriptions filled

Whereas other university’s health departments rely upon income generated from sources like prescription refills, UC Davis’ SHCS is unique in that it is funded entirely through student fees, thanks to a referendum passed by UC Davis students, Walter said.

“Funding for mental health comes from student service fees and also mental health fees and some mental health initiative fees,” explained Dr. Cory Vu, the associate vice chancellor for Health, Wellness, and Divisional Resources. “Ninety-seven or 98% of that pays for staffing and 2 or 3% pays for operations.”

These fees were collected at the beginning of the year and have not been impacted by COVID-19, according to Walter. 

Furthermore, Walter said it would be a “stretch” to say that the furloughs are COVID-19-related: “I guess you could say it’s related to COVID because COVID sent our students away,” Walter said. Vu also confidently and repeatedly denied that the furloughs are COVID-19-related. 

Counselors, however, say “obviously” the furloughs are COVID-19-related.

“We have been told in staff meetings that we are in a major budget deficit (like most departments in UC),” Counselor C said via email. “Obviously, this is due to Covid 19. I think anyone would be hard pressed to even say that furloughs are not related to Covid 19. We have never had so many staff placed on furlough with little notice and involuntarily. And we are told “we don’t always do this” (in reference to multiple furloughs) in the same breath of telling us of budget deficits and uncertainty.”

Vu, Walter and other university leaders interviewed for this story claim that summertime furloughs for partial-year staff are a regular and annual occurrence.

“This year, it is what it is, and it’s not because of COVID-19,” Vu said. “It would’ve been a normal course of action that would’ve taken place anyways.”

All six counselors, however, said this is not an annual occurrence — even for partial-year staff. Counselor E said, “it was understood [that] there was never really a need for furlough,” with the exception of those furloughs enacted after the 2008 recession. As recently as March, counselors with partial-year appointments were told it would not be necessary for them to furlough this year. 

Counselor C echoed this, saying partial-year staff “were told their positions included possibility of furlough but were reassured at hiring this never happens involuntarily.”

In response, Vu said that, in previous years, there might be different or unusual budgetary circumstances — such as staffing shortages — which then provide SHCS with financial opportunities that enable the department to employ partial-year employees for all 12 months. In the past, SHCS has been short-staffed, and that has provided a budgetary surplus, “but right now, we’re pretty much very close to full capacity,” Vu said.

That was disputed by Counseling Director Paul Kim, who said counseling was 75 to 80% staffed before the pandemic and remains at these levels. According to Counselor E, Counseling Services lost two full-time counselors this academic year — and this is on top of other, existing vacancies. These multiple vacancies have left “students underserved,” Counselor E said.

In her response, Walter said enacting the furloughs this year was a financially prudent move.

“We have funded these partial-year positions to pay the salaries as they are, [and] when we choose not to furlough someone, we have to find that money to pay them,” Walter said. “During this time, it was prudent of us to not try to find those resources, […] especially given that summer is remote.”

When asked what funding sources were previously used to fund those additional months of work, Walter said SHCS has “a whole bunch of funding sources” and “it just depends on where we have the savings at that time.”

Yet counselors also say it doesn’t make sense why the current fiscal year’s budget would be impacted, given that Counseling Services is funded through student fees that were already collected pre-pandemic.

“The budget is July 1 to June 30, [so] even with the pandemic, there’s no fundamental changes to that budget,” Counselor E said.

Additionally, current projections for first-year enrollment for fall are “surprisingly strong,” according to UC Davis Chancellor Gary May in a recent interview. And because SHCS is supported by student funds, funding levels should be more or less maintained moving forward.

How Student Affairs factors in

All six counselors said that in department meetings, Walter and Kim pointed to huge financial losses in Student Affairs as a reason for a change in SHCS’s expected budget for the current fiscal year. 

If student funds meant for Counseling Services were being redirected to Student Affairs, as all six counselors say they were told, these student funds would seemingly be being used in an inappropriate manner

In that recent interview, May had said that the campus’ move to suspended operations impacted the university’s budget by $125 million. This included both costs unique to the COVID-19 pandemic and lost revenue, with $35 million of that coming from “returned Housing and Dining contracts from students who went back home.” The division of Student Affairs includes Housing and Dining Services as well as SHCS.

Counselor F said there was discussion by management about the Student Affairs’ budget “being really hit,” and the message conveyed to staff by SHCS management was that “basically, we’re making up for some deficit in the Student Affairs’ budget.” 

Counselor A said Walter had told counseling staff that because Student Affairs is in “the red,” funds that “were going to be utilized for mental health have to go in other places.” Walter denied that she said this.

“Student service fees [are] a big fee that students pay, [and] they pay for athletics and a lot of Student Affairs stuff, and a slice of that is the mental health fund and another slice of that is the fee we get in SHCS and that fee gets split in half — half to counseling and half to medical,” Walter explained. “Those are directed by Student Affairs, but we haven’t seen any change in those fees.”

All six counselors, however, say it was either directly stated or strongly implied on at least one, if not multiple, occasions that these furloughs were tied to Student Affairs losses. Counselor F said staff brought up concerns with management about why Student Affairs losses would affect counseling finances.

“How is it that their losses affect us?” Counselor F asked. “Plus, there are vacancies and salary savings with that, so how is it there’s no money to pay people through the end of the fiscal year? There just wasn’t enough clarity. I don’t know that there’s something shady going on, but answers thus far about why this is happening are just sort of lacking.”

Vu, Kim, Walter and Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Emily Galindo, however, deny that funds from SHCS were moved to Student Affairs and have said no new budgetary directives were given to SHCS by Student Affairs or by any other university department.

According to Walter, the only new budgetary directive given to SHCS since the pandemic began was from UC Davis Budget and Institutional Analysis, which told SHCS and all other university departments not to change any line items in their budgets ending in a negative. This directive came so that the pandemic’s financial impact could be documented and so that the university could then request funding specific to the pandemic, such as funding provided through the CARES Act.

But to Counselor B, the idea of SHCS “willingly cutting services [for] students at a time where mental health needs are higher than ever” feels like “a big mismatch.”

“We were told in staff meetings that Student Affairs as a whole is losing a significant amount of money due to dorms being nearly empty as a result of COVID-19 campus closure,” Counselor B said. “Within our meetings, we were also informed that CS [Counseling Services] is not income-generating, as our student services are covered within registration fees. Therefore, our budget should have been set for the year. However, following COVID-19 closures and student refunds, CS furloughed staff. It seems difficult to untangle these two events.”

Budget transparency

All six counselors noted that a lack of budgetary transparency within SHCS is a trend that has continued for years. Some counselors said that when their colleagues have requested copies of the budget from SHCS management, these requests went unfulfilled.

“If they’re wanting to build more trust, they’re just going to generate more speculation if they’re not transparent,” Counselor C said. “What are the reasons behind not sharing this? Is this a trust issue? [Are they] planning to use the money in ways that they’re anticipating we’re going to disagree with? It starts building more mistrust about what actually is going on.”

In response, Vu, Kim and Walter said the budget is routinely presented to employees at staff meetings. Vu also said the budget is presented in meetings with the Council on Student Affairs and Fees, which is composed of both students and faculty members.

“I don’t know what those counselors are referring to,” Vu said. “Budgets are talked about quite a bit, even with students, too, because a large chunk of the budget is coming from fees from students. So everyone knows how we’re spending those funds.”

Recognizing that it was an anxious time and that additional information and transparency would be helpful, Kim organized a staff meeting on May 20 — and a follow-up meeting on May 26 for those unable to attend the earlier meeting — focused on budgetary transparency.

“Margaret [Walter] and I wanted to take time to give our staff information about the different funding sources — the student service fee and the mental health fee,” Kim said. “We wanted to explain both funding services as well as expenditures so that our staff had an idea about where we were in terms of our budget.”

Although Counselor F acknowledged that the meetings were helpful, they said the meetings occurred “a full month after furloughs were announced.” Counselor B also pointed out that these meetings “transpired following persistence from staff.”

In Counselor C’s eyes, the pie charts and “data speak language” used both in and out of the meetings when it comes to the budget are “difficult to decipher” and reminiscent of “smoke and mirrors.”

“It is cultural incompetency to assume they are transparent when we don’t understand the language and aren’t given time to engage,” Counselor C said via email. “This is a systemic problem […] not unlike other institutions built on bureaucratic levels of decision making and communication styles vs. “reasonable” collaborative inclusion in the process.”

How the furloughs will impact the availability of counseling services

When asked whether it would be fair to say that UC Davis is effectively cutting back on its scope of mental health services during a time of crisis, Vu, Walter, Kim and Galindo all gave a resounding no. Kim even ventured to say that the university had expanded its scope of services, justifying this by pointing to five new podcasts added to the SHCS website.

All six counselors, however, disagreed. Counselor C said “anyone would be hard pressed to say ‘no’ that the ‘scope’ of services have not been reduced.”

“When you anticipate having […] providers being out for 1-2 months at around the same time, I’m not sure how you can argue that we are [not] cutting back on our scope of [mental health] resources,” Counselor E said via email. “I’m not sure how podcasts, as useful as they are, can replace staff and other resources that are typically offered.”

All six counselors also said the counseling staff being furloughed have a heavier caseload of students than others in Counseling Services, meaning their absences will “result in a decreased availability for students, given that we were already short-staffed,” Counselor B said.

Although some of the furloughed SHCS staff will be taking their furloughs at different times, the furloughs will occur in the summer. Despite summer session enrollment at UC Davis being up by over 30%, Galindo noted that there will still be less demand for counseling services over the summer as compared to the academic year because overall student enrollment will be significantly smaller.

“For the summer, we also have the ability, if we saw a surge at some point, to look at how we would change our staffing,” Galindo said. 

What will happen to the students being seen by furloughed staff

According to furloughing counselors, directives about what to do with their current student caseload while they furlough were not readily given by the management team when the furlough decision was announced. 

“We’re the ones asking these questions like, ‘Okay, so what’s the plan? What do we do?’” Counselor B said. “‘We’re already short staffed, [so] how are our remaining colleagues going to maintain our caseload?’” 

The lack of clear direction from the get-go, in addition to the late furloughing notice, made it seem as if the furlough decision was made “in haste,” Counselor B said.

All six counselors have said it seems like management did not plan the furlough decision well and that the consequences of the furloughs were not fully taken into consideration. In response, Walter and Kim said because some counselors have not furloughed in the past, this might seem like an unusual process.

  “But if that’s the feeling, that is our responsibility to make sure they have the support, given that they haven’t done it before,” Walter said. “To say that we had a plan doesn’t excuse the fact that they might not have known about it, and that’s on us.”

Ultimately, in terms of what to do with their student caseload, counselors were told to either wrap up sessions with students for good or refer them to colleagues, off-campus providers or LiveHealth Online.

“Time in sessions with students is then being taken up by transitioning them,” Counselor B said. “The responsibility is then put back onto the clinicians being furloughed versus management stepping up and making plans on how they’re going to deal with this.”

LiveHealth Online

In explanations of why they feel students will now have less access to mental health services, counselors point to the understaffing and the furloughs, but all six also pointed out that students who are not on the UC Student Health Insurance Plan (SHIP) will no longer be able to access LiveHealth Online (LHO) at no cost to them after June 30.

LHO is a contracted service that gives students the ability to speak with non-UC doctors and psychiatrists who are available 24/7. 

“Currently, both SHIP and non-SHIP students are asked to enter their insurance information when signing on to Live Health Online,” Walter explained via email. “The coupon code signals LHO to charge SHCS any out-of-pocket costs instead of sending the bill to the student. The UCD SHIP committee voted this year to include LHO as a benefit with no copay beginning […] this fall.”

Because LHO changes its coupon code annually, and because that coupon code is set to expire on June 30, non-SHIP students will need to receive the new coupon code from the university or else they will be forced to pay out of pocket for this service.

All six counselors say they were told that, due to recent budget constraints, SHCS does not have the money to cover the new coupon code for non-SHIP students after June 30. This is an issue, they say, because they were told to refer more and more students to LHO.

In response, leadership gave conflicting information. Vu said, “yes, from all indications,” LHO will “be renewed,” given that “it’s been very well accepted and embraced by students.” Walter, however, said the new coupon code will be made available for non-SHIP students for the summer, but that no assurances have been made for the fall.

“Now that Counseling and Psychiatry are offering video visits (medical providers will soon), we believe that students may be better served by our SHCS staff, who have access to their health records and can make video visits a part of a longer-term provider relationship,” Walter said. “LHO is great, but now we can encourage visits with our providers as well.”

Counselor E said one important benefit of LHO is that it ensures that students in other states and even other countries have access to care. Some UC Davis providers have state-specific licenses and can thus only provide care to students located in that state.

“We know students use this, we direct them to use this and now this service will not be offered, despite the fact it provides access to providers in other states and even countries at a time when students are dispersed throughout the world and unable to access SHCS services due to regulatory restrictions,” Counselor E said.

UC Davis operates on a brief therapy model — meaning that the number of counseling sessions provided to each student is capped. This is not unusual for a university. Because “demand will probably always be higher” than the scope of resources the university is equipped to provide, other resources, established referrals and contracted services are developed to fit the need, Counselor C explained.

Yet, some counselors say the increased reliance upon LHO reflects a larger trend in SHCS of relying upon contracted services in place of actually hiring more counselors. Additional services like podcasts can be helpful, but they are not a replacement for “a licensed professional,” Counselor E said.

“It’s like, ‘Just refer them to LiveHealth Online,’ but […] that’s not sufficient,” Counselor E said. “Maybe [that] feels less safe than seeing a counselor that is within your institution — the institution that you pay a lot of money to attend. It doesn’t sit well and it doesn’t seem right.”

How the furloughs will impact staff

“In March, before that decision of obligatory furloughs was made, staff was reassured that there was not going to be any furloughs, and people were making financial decisions given that information,” Counselor B said. “When that’s revoked and folks have already gone off and made financial decisions because they thought that they were going to be employed or had job security, that puts people in really difficult situations.”

In addition to the significant financial burdens posed by these furloughs, Counselor B said they feel that their job is not secure and fear “what’s going to happen after this summer.”

“I’ve lost trust,” Counselor E said. “[I] lost trust in my department and in UC Davis and in the UC system in general, in terms of really putting their money where their mouth is […] In a department that hails social justice and had us work on a mission statement that totes this ideal, saying I’m disappointed is an understatement.”

Written by: Hannah Holzer — campus@theaggie.org 


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