The gulf at the bargaining table between the classified staff at Oregon’s public universities, including Eastern Oregon University, and the state is coming into sharper focus as the possibility of a strike looms ever larger.

Aug. 23 was the deadline for bargaining teams from both sides to submit their final offers after an impasse was declared. On the same day, the public universities’ team released their final offer to the public. SEIU 503, the classified staff’s union, only recently released its offer to the public.

A 30-day cooling off period began Aug. 24, after which the classified employees can strike if they provide 10 days notice.

Ben Morris, SEIU 503’s communicaitons director said a settlement is far from being reached.

“Our bargaining team will not accept the current offer. I hope that over the next 30 days management will realize they can offer a fair and respectful contract,” Morris said.

SEIU is seeking a two-year contract that would provide a cost of living increase of 3.75% retroactive to July 1 of this year, and a second increase of 3.5% that would take effect July 1, 2020.

The SEIU is also asking for wage step increases for each of the two years of the p roposed contract plus the addition of a new step. The latter would allow employees who have “topped out” to receive a step increase.

Step increases are pay raises provided for job performances rated satisfactory or better. 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 wage schedule after 10 years.

Oregon’s public universities are offering classified staff employees a 2.5% total cost of living adjustment 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 staff employees are eligible. These step increases would raise the base wages of eligible employees by 9.5% over two years, according to Di Saunders, a spokesperson for the state’s seven public universities.

The first bargaining sessions during the cooling-off period are set to be conducted Sept. 11-13 in Corvallis and Sept. 23-24 at Portland State University.

The SEIU bargaining team represents about 4,500 student service employees at Oregon’s public universities. EOU has about 130 classified staff who include custodians, carpenters, plumbers, office specialists, information technology specialists and heating, air conditioning and ventilation system specialists.

The earliest the classified staff at the state’s universities could strike is Sept. 23. Morris said he hopes a strike can be avoided.

“Nobody wants to strike (but) members will do this because they want to show management they provide value to students and their campuses,” he said.

Morris said that for the last three to five years, the wage increases the university services workers have received have not kept up with inflation.

“It is time to change this,” he said.

Saunders said she remains hopeful that a contract can be settled before there is a strike, one which likely would impact students since classes at Oregon’s state universities begin Sept. 25. She noted that the classified staff and the state’s universities share a common interest: They want students to be successful.

“They (the classified staff and the universities) will work hard to make sure that the start of the school year is not disrupted,” Saunders said.