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Research Report

The impact of COVID-19 on Facilities work and staff: results of EAB’s survey of senior facilities officers

May 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic forced all higher education leaders to make tough decisions quickly. For Facilities leaders, this meant deciding how many buildings to close out, where to move students who opted to stay on campus, and how to transition to essential staffing. To better understand these decisions, EAB deployed a survey across mid-April to measure the impact of COVID-19 on operations and Facilities activities.

Nearly 75 Facilities leaders from higher education institutions across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom participated. Read on to see the main takeaways from the survey results.

Most students have vacated campus—but institutions couldn’t completely close out residence halls.

The survey revealed clear consensus on the presence of students on campus. 1 in 10 respondents reported zero students remained on campus, and another 82% reported less than 10% of the residential student population remained.

In comparison, campuses were split on how many university-owned residence halls were still occupied. Data shown at right.

Almost half of the respondents have fewer than 10% of residence halls occupied, but nearly a quarter reported that over 50% of residence halls remain occupied. These tended to be either large public or small private institutions. That said, most campuses with high occupancy reported a small percentage of students still on campus (20% or lower). This likely reflects the constraints of university residences—while social distancing protocols require access to a private restrooms, few institutions have a sufficient number of accommodations with en suite bathrooms to house all students. As a result, leaders had to spread students across an even larger footprint—hence the high occupancy rates. 

Read Three ways to optimally utilize campus spaces during COVID-19 to learn more about using empty campus buildings.

Despite inclusion of construction in most ‘essential personnel only’ orders, institutions scaled back construction activity.

For the most part, essential personnel orders include construction activity (though states like New York and Pennsylvania are notable exceptions). However, 47% of institutions report slowing down construction activity—or halting it all together.

Not all campuses who have stopping construction were forced to do so by essential orders, however. Five institutions reported voluntarily halting construction despite the option to continue.  

To reduce capital construction, leaders were forced to prioritize some projects over others. The three main factors leaders used to determine project priorities were:

  1. Importance/urgency. Institutions prioritized work that is desperately needed.
  2. Essential personnel order. Institutions were forced to slow or stop construction because of the order.
  3. Health and safety. Institutions allowed projects that require fewer than ten people or the maximum number of people allowed by the essential personnel order.

Non-urgent repair and renovation work was scaled back even more drastically than capital construction.

Institutions were more aggressive in scaling back non-urgent, non-critical repair and renovation (R&R) projects. 82% of institutions reported slowing down or halting these smaller scale projects. In comparison to construction slowdowns, this pullback is less noteworthy as the projects are smaller and more readily within the Facilities leader’s control. 

As with construction projects, leaders were forced to prioritize which projects to pursue. The three main factors they used were:

  • Health and safety. Institutions allowed projects that require fewer than ten people or the maximum number of people allowed by the essential personnel order.
  • Importance/urgency. Institutions prioritized work that is desperately needed.
  • Delivery date. Institutions chose projects close to completion or those which can be completed before the next academic year.

About 40% of Facilities departments are operating at 20% staff capacity or less.

One of the most dramatic changes for Facilities is the sheer decrease in the number of staff on campus. Nearly 40% of Facilities leaders reported reducing staffing levels to 20% or less. However, nearly one-third (30%) of institutions reported over half of Facilities staff were on campus at any given time. These tended to be private institutions and smaller campuses (with 10,000 students enrolled or less).

Higher-risk conditions on the job prompted many Facilities leaders to consider hazard pay for essential employees. Given the current fiscal reality at many institutions, however, most leaders opted against it.
Of the only 15% of leaders who reported providing
hazard pay, the most common hourly multiplier was
between 1.41-1.60x.

Read about the financial impact of COVID based on an EAB survey of chief business officers.

While Facilities pulled back staffing significantly, utilities/operations was the function least likely to
see reductions.

To dig deeper into Facilities staffing, leaders also reported data on four key functions: grounds/landscaping, utilities/operations, maintenance, and custodial. Most institutions reported that over 25% of staff across all four functions are on campus during normal operating hours. Utilities/operations was the least likely to see reduced staffing, likely due to the need to continually monitor and maintain critical infrastructure such as central plants. Grounds was the function with the highest percentage of reduced staff, most likely the result of a decreased concern for campus aesthetics during this time.

To see which tasks staff across all four functions are still performing, click here.