ASHEVILLE – Groundhog Day was not a paid holiday at community colleges in Western North Carolina.
But several did let employees take off the day after Thanksgiving with pay, or one or two days around Easter, a week around Christmas and New Year’s Day plus Veterans’ Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day.
The number of paid holidays allowed community college workers in the mountains and around the state has grown so large — up to 23 a year at one school — that state government is preparing to cap it at 12 following a recent state report.
According to the report compiled by the state auditor’s office, 31 of the state’s 58 community colleges gave employees more paid holidays than the 12 state employees get during the 2016-17 school year.
That includes McDowell Technical Community College, where workers got 20 paid holidays; Mayland Community College, 19 paid holidays; and Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, 17 holidays.
"Most employees’ salaries are paid with State funds and … community colleges should conform with certain expectations and norms," Scott Shook, chairman of the State Board of Community Colleges, and Jennifer Haygood, acting president for the community college system, wrote in response to the audit.
"It is not good public policy for community colleges to offer more paid holidays than the State government standard, and the State Board intends to correct this issue through rulemaking," Shook and Haygood wrote in a letter to State Auditor Beth Wood.
Officials at WNC schools say they have set their policies to best meet their needs but that they will abide by limits expected to be adopted this spring.
Reducing the number of holidays would be a significant change for some schools. Classes generally do not meet around Christmas and New Year’s and some schools shut down entirely during that period.
One community college president worried that keeping offices open during that period would result in added heating costs without a corresponding benefit to college operations.
No limit today
The average worker in the United States gets eight paid holidays a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The typical state and local government worker gets 11.
The community college system has no policy on how many paid holidays. The state audit says the head of the N.C. Association of Community College Presidents recommended in a 2003 memorandum that the number be limited to 12, but that memo is not binding.
Local boards of trustees, made up of residents in areas served by community colleges, make many of the decisions about how colleges are run, including setting their holiday schedules and hiring and firing college presidents.
County governments pay for college buildings and related operating expenses and state government pays community college workers.
McDowell Technical’s policy of giving 20 days "is not in violation of anything," said Michael Lavender, spokesman for the school. "It’s simply that in the absence of specific guidelines in the last 50 years or so, these things have evolved in different ways on different campuses."
Closing school buildings around Christmas results in significant savings on utility costs, which are borne by county government, he said.
Lavender says he usually has some work to do over the Christmas holiday but the workload during that period would vary from person to person.
As at other community colleges, instructors are on contracts that tie their work schedule to their class schedule, he said.
A-B Tech spokeswoman Kerri Glover said the school gave 15 paid holidays for many years, then added Memorial Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day a few years ago.
"Colleges are not a state agency," she noted. "We never thought we were out of compliance because we’re not covered by the state personnel act."
A-B Tech employs about 1,000 people, but Glover said changing the number of paid holidays would affect only about 340 of them.
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The school saves $5,500 in utility costs each day it is closed, she said.
April Birchfield, a professor at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, teaches her world civilizations class at the school’s main campus Thursday.
(Photo: Matt Burkhartt/mburkhartt@citize)
School administration has asked a staff representative and a faculty representative to make a recommendation on how to change work schedules to accommodate an expected cap on holidays.
"It’s not been a popular thing, but we’re going to comply," Glover said of the change.
Mayland President John Boyd said the 19 paid holidays the school gives employees are a tool to recruit and retain workers, something that is particularly important since pay raises approved by state government have been rare in recent years.
"It’s just taking care of your people," he said.
It would take half a million dollars from the state to return Mayland to the amount of state funding it got in 2007-08, before the last recession, he said.
"Our employees have been overlooked for a long time," Boyd said.
The school’s holiday schedule results in significant energy savings and staying open would increase costs for other services like security, he said.
Making 12 work
The average number of paid holidays at community colleges was 14 for the previous school year, the state report found. There are 24 schools that give employees 12 paid holidays and three give 11 days.
Blue Ridge Community College, which serves Henderson and Transylvania counties, is the only WNC community college that gives employees only 12 paid holidays.
"I believe that there was some understanding by our administration that our holiday count … needed to align with the state employees’," spokeswoman Lee Ann Haney said.
The school closed for more than a week around Christmas 2017, Haney said. Some of those days were paid holidays and non-teaching employees had to use vacation time for the rest.
Faculty do not earn vacation time and their contracts are structured so that they are at the school when they are needed, she said.
Staff work continues at times like spring break when classes do not meet, she said: "The business world keeps on going."
Generally, community college employees get the same amount of vacation time as state employees. That ranges from 14 days a year for those on the job less than five years to 26 days for people with 20 or more years of service.
Schools in the University of North Carolina system also abide by a cap of 12 paid holidays. Individual schools have some flexibility in setting their holiday schedule.
Three of the 12 days must fall at Christmas and at UNC Asheville, employees have the option of extending their winter break using vacation days, said Nicole Norian, associate vice chancellor for human resources.
The community colleges board is scheduled to take up the issue Thursday and Friday, said Brian Long, a spokesman for the community college system. The earliest date it could adopt a rule on holidays is April 20, he said.
Boyd, the Mayland president, pushed back against the idea of going to a 12-day limit on paid holidays in an email exchange with other system officials around the time the state audit came out in January.
"I hope we don’t start overreacting again because of a report," he wrote, saying a policy change could have implications beyond the number of holidays workers get.
"Also, who pays for the increased facility operating cost, security and custodial services if we set policy that requires colleges to open their doors for no reason other than a report?" Boyd asked.
But given the backing from system leaders, adoption of a 12-day limit seems likely.
Haygood, the acting system president, wrote community college presidents in response to Boyd’s email that adopting a holiday limit would reduce the chances of the General Assembly applying all of the rules in the state personnel act to the system, thus protecting colleges’ flexibility on other employment issues.
In the same email exchange, Dale McInnis, president of Richmond Community College in the southern Piedmont, voiced worries about legislative retribution if the system does not take action.
"We will likely be compared to the other state agencies and their employees and that may paint us in a negative light with the General Assembly at the same time we need to have their full trust and confidence," he wrote. "If we are seen as being defensive … we are at risk of having some punitive legislative action taken against all our colleges, not just those providing more than 12 holidays."
Taking the day off
This chart shows the number of paid holidays employees of Western North Carolina community colleges received during the 2016-17 fiscal year, according to a report from the Office of State Auditor. The location of the main campus of each school is in parentheses.
Asheville-Buncombe Technical CC (Asheville) 17
Blue Ridge CC (Flat Rock) 12
Haywood CC (Clyde) 15
Isothermal CC (Spindale) 13
Mayland CC (Spruce Pine) 19
McDowell Technical CC (Marion) 20
Southwestern CC (Webster) 16
Tri-County CC (Murphy) 16