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Professional Staff Congress Sues CUNY for Violating Federal CARES Act

July 4, 2020

By Marc Bussanich

New York, NY – The Professional Staff Congress has filed a lawsuit against the City University of New York seeking immediate injunctive relief against the firing of nearly 3,000 adjunct faculty and staff. The layoffs loom, even though the university received a total of $250 million in funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security [CARES] Act in March.

The union representing CUNY faculty and staff have hit the streets in an effort to block devastating austerity measures — now they are taking the fight to the courts.

The lawsuit seeks to compel CUNY to comply with its obligations under the CARES Act to “honor its promise to, to the greatest extent practicable, continue to pay its employees during the period of any disruptions or closures related to the coronavirus pandemic.”

According to the lawsuit, in order to receive CARES Act Relief Fund monies, an institution of higher education must enter into a “Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund Certification Agreement.” The union says that, on information and belief, CUNY entered into the Contract as a condition of receiving CARES Act money. 

The lawsuit goes on to say that CUNY cannot show that “to the greatest extent practicable” it is continuing to pay its adjuncts, especially in light of its FY2020 Third Quarter Financial Report from June 4. 

The report’s executive summary states that the overall financial outlook is stable for the current year. In fact, according to the report, CUNY is projected to end the fiscal year with $52 million in reserves.

“The Third Quarter Report says nothing about the necessity of laying off of any employees, let alone thousands of adjuncts,” the lawsuit states. 

That projected surplus, combined with some of the CARES Act funding, could help offset the adjunct layoffs.

“At a minimum, CUNY has available the $132 awarded to CUNY colleges in institutional CARES Act funding—the portion of the funding not restricted to direct student aid—and the $52 million in projected fiscal year-end surplus. These monies can be used to pay the adjuncts now being laid off,” says the lawsuit.

In addition to the layoffs, several hundred adjuncts are at risk of losing their health care coverage. Preceding the lawsuit, the union and the university signed an agreement on May 29 whereby the Chancellor will direct the colleges to make every effort to keep insured adjuncts eligible for coverage. But the PSC says that roughly 20 percent of insured adjuncts will lose coverage.


Also, part of the agreement, the University would provide detailed college budget information, including information about proposed cuts, State and City fiscal situations and enrollment projections.

But as described in the lawsuit, at a June 24, 2020 bargaining session, PSC President Barbara Bowen noted that other than the Third Quarter Financial Report, CUNY had not provided the union with any of the information it had agreed to provide in the May 29 agreement. 

“CUNY’s representatives told President Bowen and the bargaining team they did not have college specific information, that they did not have enrollment information and that they did not have City budget information,” the lawsuit says. 

As far as the State’s fiscal situation, the CUNY’s representative noted that while the State had projected a $13.1 billion shortfall and a $10.1 billion in cuts to various agencies, the State had not yet advised which agencies would be cut. 

The union represents about 12,000 adjuncts out of a total membership of 30,000, and they play a key role in the functioning of the university. Indeed, during the time of the pandemic, the union says that adjuncts have had to convert their classes into remote learning classes, troubleshooting their students’ technological problems in the process. 

The lawsuit comes on the heels of various actions by the PSC and its members to safeguard adjuncts from massive layoffs. 

On May 19, they hit the streets in Manhattan in a rolling caravan, while on June 23, the union formed a social distancing line from CUNY Central Office on 42nd Street to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to demonstrate their strong opposition to CUNY’s proposed budgetary cuts in the wake of the coronavirus recession. This was followed by a massive march and rally from Brooklyn Borough Hall to City Hall on June 27, organized by the University Student Senate. 

And one day after the lawsuit was filed, PSC adjuncts and adjuncts staff rallied outside Brooklyn College to demand CUNY reverse the cuts of nearly 3,000 adjuncts, which was broadcasted live via PSC’s Facebook Page. 

Just after PSC filed the lawsuit, PSC’s president, Barbara Bowen questioned CUNY’s decision to lay off adjuncts when it is the recipient of CARES Act funding. 

“How can CUNY lay off thousands of workers when it has been awarded $251 million in CARES Act funds, which come with an explicit requirement about keeping employees on payroll?” said Bowen.


She referred to the lawsuit, which states that the layoffs violate Section 18006 of the CARES Act, which requires CUNY to continue to pay adjuncts “to the greatest extent practicable,” and breach a contract that CUNY entered into with the federal government as a condition of receiving the CARES Act money. 

Additionally, numerous elected officials, including Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have spoken out against the layoffs and called on the CUNY administration to be transparent about the use of the CARES Act money. 

July 4, 2020

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