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ELP Closes Amid Worker Complaints

Friday May 07, 2004

After 31 years as one of the nation’s most prestigious centers for foreigners to come and learn the English language, class was officially dismissed at Berkeley’s English Language Program (ELP) Thursday.  

But as the professors marched out of their last classes and through the campus to vent their rage at UC administrators at a tearful mock funeral, they insisted their fight to save the program—or at least to force a severance package out of the university—isn’t over yet. 

“We can’t let them get away with not taking care of us,” said Suzan Tiemroth-Zavala, one of five teachers who stands to lose lifetime health benefits when the program officially closes next week. 

Last January, UC Berkeley Extension announced that the ELP, which regularly attracted 2,000 elite students every year from across the globe, would shut its doors this month. The rationale wasn’t financial or programmatic, said UC Berkeley Extension Dean Jim Sherwood, who made the call to terminate the program. Rather it was a question of appropriateness.  

According to a strategic plan completed last year, Sherwood said, English as Second Language has proliferated throughout the Bay Area and is no longer a good fit for the Berkeley campus. He explained that the program lost about $400,000 last year—a fraction of the Extension program’s deficit. 

When the ax fell, the 26 instructors found themselves with few rights. Although most of them had taught full-time with the program for over a decade on one-year contracts, they were not unionized, not classified as faculty, and were not entitled to a severance package. 

For the five teachers under the age of 50, the blow was particularly hard and the stakes exceptionally high. A UC policy offers 100 percent life-time medical benefits to employees with more than ten years of experience that retire at age 50 or older. Workers who started after 1990 are entitled to only 50 percent. 

At age 48, and with 16 years as an ELP teacher, Tiermroth-Zavala was two years away from guaranteed lifetime health care. Now, come July when her contact expires, she is looking at $1,000 COBRA premiums for her and her family, and an eventual loss of health insurance when those COBRA benefits run out. 

“It’s outrageous,” she complained. “Just because of our age, we lose everything.” 

Tiermroth-Zavala and the other teachers have 120 days to find another job at UC, but as non-union worker, they have no preferential rehire rights will be placed behind a waiting list of 200 prospective union candidates. 

The teachers are asking for a year’s severance from the day they were notified of the program’s demise—the same right negotiated by the university’s lecturers, said Michelle Squitieri, a Field Representative for University Council-American Federation of Teachers. That organization is offering guidance to the ELP instructors.  

Squitieri said Dean Sherwood sacked the program because the teachers had already filed unfair labor grievances against UC for past layoff practices and that the Dean failed to follow proper procedures, which, she said, required him to consult the Academic Senate’s Committee on University Extension before canning the ELP. 

For his part, Dean Sherwood maintained that although he didn’t discuss the ELP program specifically with the committee, he did go over the strategic plan’s criteria for “appropriateness” last fall before he closed the program. 

“I honestly believe I sought advice from the committee and I feel I followed the process that was outlined,” he said. As far as the severance, he said his hands were tied by a UC system-wide policy.  

Debra Harrington, UC Berkeley’s manager of labor relations, did not return phone calls to the Daily Planet. 

On Monday, UC Berkeley’s Divisional Academic Senate is scheduled to review a report on the decision to close the program. While he cautioned that he hadn’t yet seen the report, prepared by the Academic Senate’s Extension Committee, Senate Chairman Ron Gronsky said, “I don’t think we’re going to see that there was faculty consultation. The dean should have gone to the committee and said we need your advice. That’s what should have happened.” 

Even if the Academic Senate finds Dean Sherwood didn’t follow proper procedures, Gronsky said it acts solely in an advisory capacity for the Extension program, and he didn’t think its decision could compel the university to reinstate the program or compensate the teachers. 

“I told [them] the legal route is [their] best hope,” he said. 

In that vein, ELP teacher Cliff Stevens filed a grievance with the university last month, asking for the program to be reinstated. In the alternative, Stevens is asking for the teachers to receive a severance package. The case is currently before James Hunt, a professor of civil engineering. 

Additionally, Margot Rosenberg, the attorney for UC lecturers, has amended the ELP teachers’ complaint before the Public Employee Relations Board to include the charge that UC Extension axed the program as retaliation for ongoing complaints filed by the teachers. 

The amended complaint seeks to keep the program alive, but Rosenberg hopes that if it fell short of that goal it could at least bring monetary relief. “In lieu of that, we’re seeking to make the teachers whole for their loses,” she said. 

Most teachers said they were left with an empty feeling on their last day of classes. 

“It’s like being found guilty in court when you know you’re innocent,” said David Winet, who has taught at the program since 1975.  

“I’ve never worked anywhere that had a faculty community feeling like this place,” said Kathleen Letellier, a teacher at the school since 1991. “It’s awful to walk into a teacher’s room and see people crying.” 

Then turning to Tiermroth-Zavala, her eyes welled up. “This is what I’ve been in denial about all this year, that I’m not going to see you every morning,” Letellier said.