Efforts to avert a strike by the classified staff of Oregon’s public universities, one which would impact Eastern Oregon University, will continue in two weeks when bargaining teams for the classified employees and the state will meet.

The bargaining sessions will be conducted Sept. 11-13, according to Di Saunders, a spokesperson for Oregon’s seven public universities. The sessions will start about three weeks after an impasse was declared and final offers were submitted by both bargaining teams Friday.

A 30-day cooling off period has since started. SEIU 503, the classified employees union, can give notice during the cooling off period that it intends to strike. However, it can’t strike until after the 30 days and must give the public universities 10 days notice before doing so, said Saunders. This means the earliest the classified employees could strike would be about Sept. 23.

SEIU 503 has not released its final offer, but Oregon’s public universities have. They are offering classified staff employees a 2.5% total cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 2020-21 but no increases in 2019. Classified staff employees would receive a 1% COLA increase March 1, 2020, and 0.75% COLA boosts on Nov. 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021.

The state’s universities are also offering step increases in 2019-20 and 2020-21, for which 70% of the classified employees are eligible. These step increases would raise the base wages of eligible employees by 9.5% over two years. This combined with the 2.5% COLA would increase wages for most employees by 12% over two years, Saunders said.

The step increases Saunders refers to are pay raises provided for job performances rated satisfactory or better, but are not awards for “merit,” according to a state university fact sheet. The vast majority of classified staff receive step increases, unless their job performance is deemed not satisfactory.

Employees who have reached the top of the wage schedule have “topped out” and are not eligible for step increases. Employees reach the top of the wage schedule after 10 years of employment.

The SEIU’s last proposal before making its final offer Friday asked for a 3.75% COLA increase retroactive to July 1 of this year and a 3.5% COLA boost beginning July 1, 2021. The SEIU also asked for step increases for each of the two years of the proposed contract and the addition of a new top step. The latter would allow employees who have “topped out” to receive a step increase, said Ben Morris, a SEIU 503 representative.

On Friday, Morris told The Observer that before final offers were submitted negotiations had reached a standstill. He said the wage increases offered by the state were inadequate in terms of allowing employees to keep up with inflation.

SEIU 503 represents about 4,500 student services workers at Oregon’s public universities. EOU has about 130 classified staff who work in positions such as custodian, carpenter, plumber, information technology, office specialist and heating, air conditioning and ventilation system specialist.

Tim Seydel, vice president for university advancement at EOU, said he wants what is best for employees.

“We are committed to providing all of our employees a fair wage that allows EOU to attract and retain great people,” he said in an email to The Observer. “We know there is a lot of work going into finding an agreement and remain optimistic that a solution can be found that works for everyone.”

Saunders said on Sunday the state’s universities are facing a tough balancing act.

“We want to be fair to very valuable employees of the universities,” she said.

Saunders noted that before giving wage increases, universities have to be careful to gauge the impact they will have on student tuition. She explained that when wages are raised, tuition has to be increased to garner the revenue to pay for them. Years ago, this was not the case because the universities received more state funding and were not reliant on tuition as a primary source of funding.

“We have to look at how a wage increase will impact student tuition,” said Saunders, who is vice president for communication and public affairs at Oregon Institute of Technology.

Saunders believes there is a good chance a strike can be avoided.

“I am very hopeful that a good settlement can be reached prior to a strike,” she said.

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