The University of South Florida last year gave an estimated 5,500 employees this choice: take off three days in late December without pay, or use three days of paid vacation to cover the time.
Now an arbitrator has said the university didn't have the authority to force unionized faculty members to take the annual leave.
In an e-mail Monday evening, USF provost Ralph Wilcox said the university would re-credit the leave not only to affected faculty members but to any employee who had been forced to take it.
"The only fair action is to extend the restoration to ALL eligible employees," he wrote.
The USF chapter of United Faculty of Florida challenged the decision in a grievance last year. The arbitrator's decision was released last week.
USF's work force is 12,500, but the annual leave requirement affected only employees who were on 12-month contracts with benefits, USF spokesman Michael Hoad said. That amounted to about 5,500 employees. About 600 were faculty members.
The immediate cash savings from the three-day mandate were expected to be modest, coming from closing buildings so they didn't have to be air conditioned, cleaned or watched by security. Longer-term savings were to come in the form of smaller amounts of accrued leave that USF would have owed employees in the future.
Administrators considered the three days, which they designated as vacation, as "a far better option for employees" than using furloughs or layoffs to balance the budget, Wilcox said in his e-mail.
Since 2007, USF has cut 595 jobs and reorganized its College of Arts & Sciences to cut costs.
While the university's finances are relatively stable, Wilcox said, "this decision will prompt us to explore alternative strategies to balance USF's budget in the future."
The faculty union represents about 1,650 employees on all USF campuses. Most are faculty members, but a couple of hundred are noninstructional professionals. It does not represent the faculty in the College of Medicine.
"They just asserted that they could do this and probably were hoping that we would not file a grievance," said faculty union president Sherman Dorn, a professor of education.
"The university must come talk to us if they want to change the terms and conditions of employment of the people we represent," he said. "This is not a hope. This is an expectation, and the arbitrator backed us completely."