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Union Institute & University employees reach settlement over unpaid wages

Union Institute & University headquarters in Walnut Hills
Zack Carreon
Union Institute & University headquarters in Walnut Hills.

Employees who worked for Union Institute & University have agreed to settle a lawsuit against the school over unpaid wages after a nearly year-long legal battle.

The lawsuit was filed against Union Institute in April 2023 after employees claimed the school had not paid them in over a month and asked them to continue working without pay.

Emails from Union's President Karen Schuster Webb obtained by WVXU revealed the university didn't have enough money to make payroll, and was waiting to receive federal grants and other loans to pay staff.

Despite the messages of reassurance from Webb, the financial debacle continued. While Union was able to give some employees back pay, the missed paychecks continued throughout the rest of the year, until the university had almost no employees left and no longer held classes.

RELATED: Union Institute employee files lawsuit over unpaid wages as the semester comes to a close

This week, the two parties reached a deal, with Union Institute agreeing to pay $110,000 to the plaintiffs. Thirty-three-thousand of that will go toward attorney fees and another $22,000 will be divided between the six employees who joined the lawsuit, leaving $55,000 for a common fund set to be divided between all eligible former employees who opt-in for payments.

In court records, Union Institute denies any liability or wrongdoing.

The employees' attorney, Matt Okiishi with Finney Law Firm, says even though Union Institute has a questionable record with paying its workers, this time, the university has put forward the money owed and employees will actually receive compensation once the judge signs off on the deal.

"Rather than having an illusory promise of 'Well, we might be able to get X amount here, or X there,' this is real money that is currently just waiting for final court approval and then eventually disbursement," Okiishi told WVXU.

Okiishi says because Union Institute is a school that's struggling financially, it was difficult to reach a settlement that would even get close to adequately making up for the money workers did not receive between February and October 2023.

Still, employees are relieved and ready to move past the situation that turned their lives upside down.

"From the conversations that I've had, it's generally relief," Okiishi said. "It's good to be at a point where we can put this whole ordeal behind us, move forward with everybody's lives, and heal, because missing pay, it is traumatic."

Once the settlement is finished in court, eligible employees will be contacted by the law firm to claim a portion of the settlement.

What about the students?

These days, many of Union Institute's students and staff have moved on and left the school for educational opportunities and employment elsewhere.

In December, Antioch University announced it had mutually agreed on a plan with Union Institute & University to assist students with completing their degrees. Antioch accepted students from Union's MBA, clinical mental health and counseling, and interdisciplinary studies Ph.D. degree programs.

RELATED: 'Egregious failure': Union Institute loses federal aid, fined millions for misuse of funds

A former Union Institute Ph.D. student told WVXU, "Antioch has been gracious and is clearly trying to do the right thing. It's great to see after the silence of the last however-many months."

Currently, Union Institute & University remains accredited, according to its accreditor The Higher Learning Commission, which held a focused visit at Union in October 2023 to look into its finances.

HLC says Union's case is going through its regular review process, which can take several months.

Union Institute's website no longer displays a start date for its next semester, though it still encourages potential students to apply to its degree programs.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.