Defying higher authority, Pasadena church furloughs workers amid coronavirus outbreak
After Catholic schools and churches closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles urged parishes to continue paying their staff.
Those employees had accepted meager salaries for years, it said, and now wasn’t the time to abandon them.
“These people have responsibilities, have families. You’ve got to think of that,” Msgr. Albert Bahhuth, the vicar general for the archdiocese, said in a March 24 webinar. “If we lay them off, if we stop paying them, what’s going to happen to them?”
That didn’t stop St. Andrew Catholic Church and its school in Pasadena from going ahead with their furlough, without pay, of more than a dozen workers, a decision Father Marcos Gonzalez said was prompted because there was “no income to pay the employees.”
Workers, who spoke with the Los Angeles Times on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they worried about being able to pay their bills and expressed disillusionment with the church.
“This was probably the last thing I saw coming,” one furloughed worker said. “At least being part of a Catholic church.”
The Archdiocese of L.A. said it is helping parishes and schools to continue to pay their employees and cover bills.
“The Archdiocese continues to urge all our parishes and schools to find ways to make sure that staff are kept on and avoid any layoffs or furloughs,” spokeswoman Carolina Guevara said in an email. “That said the economic impact on our local church and the ability for our ministries to continue to serve our communities may be substantial as the crisis continues, requiring the Archdiocese to continually reevaluate the situation, especially since many of our ministries rely on donations and the generosity of our faithful and people of goodwill.”
Across the state, and country, there have been a surge of layoffs as employers grapple with the economic effects of the coronavirus.
But even as Catholic schools and churches closed their doors and moved services and classes online, the Archdiocese of L.A. said it was not at the point of needing to take such drastic actions.
“I would like to plead with you and beg you to please don’t lay off any employees at this time,” Bahhuth, said in the webinar. “Don’t put them on furlough.”
Bahhuth, who sat beside Archbishop José H. Gomez in the video, said parishes could apply for a loan from the diocese to help with payroll. And, rather than eliminating workers’ income entirely, Bahhuth suggested reducing hours if needed.
“For many years, many of them have accepted to work at our schools, at our parishes at lower pay so they can support the church and fulfill their mission,” he added. “Let’s not abandon them at this time.”
Days after St. Andrew Catholic School closed on March 13, church employees said, Gonzalez directed the principal to furlough nine workers. At the parish, three full-time and four part-time staffers were furloughed.
In an email to The Times, Gonzalez confirmed that most of the nonteaching personnel at the school had been furloughed and that everyone at the parish was furloughed, “except one part-time bookkeeper since the church and office are closed.”
“This was a very sad decision but required since we have no regular collections so there is no income to pay the employees,” Gonzalez said.
The parish has not applied for a loan, but may do so in the future, according to Gonzalez.
“The suggestion from Msgr. Bahhuth was not practical for us as we have no savings and only recently had started to balance our budget after paying off debt, which I inherited when I was appointed pastor last July,” he said.
Church employees described struggling to find work and to explain the situation to their families, especially their children.
“It’s still draining to see that this was the first resort,” one furloughed worker said. “In the midst of a crisis, this is how you’re going to do the people who kept that school going? It’s heartbreaking.”
“I’m left here stressed trying to figure out what the hell I’m going to do,” another worker said. “This is how we’re treated? Like we’re the trash on the floor? We deserve more than that.”
In a Facebook Live gathering on March 25, the school’s principal, Raphael Domingo, acknowledged to parents that school aides had been furloughed and that they were in the process of trying to get them back.
“We have a financial obligation to our employees and to our staff and I take that obligation very seriously,” he said. In the video, he said the school was “doing well in terms of our cash flow.”
Domingo said he anticipated that the furloughed workers would return once school reopened, potentially on April 20. But that return date is uncertain after President Trump announced that federal social distancing guidelines meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus would be extended to April 30.
Churches across the country are facing financial struggles. In a message to parishioners, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said it “may be necessary to implement an archdiocesan-wide salary furlough of up to 25% for all employees.”
It is unclear how many church employees in the Archdiocese of L.A. have been furloughed.
In comments left on the March 24 webinar, a Diamond Bar church’s director of administration said their workers had already been put on furlough and asked to use vacation time in order to get paid.
The director asked if the archdiocese’s guidance meant “that our furlough will be suspended and our staff do not have to use their vacation.”
In the webinar, Bahhuth addressed questions about some who “might have already jumped the gun and put their staff on furlough.”
“You can bring them back,” he said.
In interviews with The Times, some St. Andrew parents said they are considering sending their children to a different school next year.
Although instruction has shifted online, families continue to pay about $500 a month in tuition.
“I think if you’re going to come out in the green after this, then there’s a problem,” said one parent, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation against their child. “The people who really need it are the furloughed aides and assistants.”
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