‘We’re in unknown territory’: Uncertainty follows parish and diocesan employee layoffs 

‘We’re in unknown territory’: Uncertainty follows parish and diocesan employee layoffs 

Credit: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock.
Credit: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock.

.- Dawne Mechlinski was a parish music minister for 41 years.

When she was 12 years old, when she was asked to be the organist at her parish in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. She agreed, and added organ lessons onto her piano lessons. After attending Westminster Choir College, she’s been a full-time director of music since 1988 in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.

Mechlinski, now 53, is the kind of parish music minister who sticks around - she’s only ever served at three different parishes, including her childhood parish. She’s been at her current parish, St. Mark's in Sea Girt, since 2006.

That is, until the coronavirus pandemic struck.

At first, Mechlinski said employees of the parish took their own social distancing and health precautions, but for the most part, “everything was normal. Then on the weekend of the 14th and 15th (of March), I had questions from parents of choir members.”

The parents were wondering if choir practice was continuing, and if so, what it would look like. Mechlinski, who directs four choirs, decided to cancel choir for the weekend. Instead she played the organ while one person sang for all four Masses.

Attendance was low, Mechlinski noted, as social distancing was already catching on throughout the United States, but the collection basket wasn’t hit too hard, as many parishioners have moved to online donations.

Later that week, on Thursday, March 19, Mechlinski played the organ again for a funeral Mass. That evening, she got the call.

"We've decided you're furloughed,” the parish business administrator told Mechlinski.

“I even had to question really what that meant,” she said. “I thought that was a military term, to be honest. I wasn't prepared. I actually thought she was calling to give me protocol, how we would be handling things, what would be going on down the road.”

“And the business administrator just said, ‘This is what everyone (in the diocese) is doing, this is how we'll handle it.’ She was reading me this letter. And that was it. She said, ‘You will be paid until tomorrow,’ which was Friday. I'm off on Wednesdays and Fridays, and that was it.”

Bishops across the United States have suspended public liturgies and closed church buildings in the past few weeks in response to state-issued public safety policies, and Catholic leaders have warned of an immediate revenue shortfall. Consequences of that shortfall include staff reductions, furloughs, and decreased hours.

The furlough came as a shock to Mechlinski, who noted that her parish is located in a “very affluent” area. Music ministry has been her life-long passion, it’s also her career: the primary source of income for a widowed mother to four children, two of whom still live at home and have significant medical needs.

Mechlinski said she tried to ask some clarifying questions, but as of now, things are “not real clear.” She’s unsure what will happen to her health insurance or her life insurance. She was told that her parish had not been paying into unemployment insurance, so she’s not sure what she qualifies for as far as any kind of aid right now.

“I am...a little alarmed that they don't have something in place for their employees as a protection,” she said. “I've asked for a letter of furlough explaining (the details) and I have yet to receive it. I've asked for it a couple of times just to have something permanent rather than a phone conversation.”

Linda Rosa, the business manager at St. Mark’s, told CNA that the parish had been in a deficit even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“We weren't in the best shape to begin with. We were just trying to get out of it and all of a sudden, there's something that happens,” Rosa said. She said she has been in touch with employees and with the diocese as the parish has had to make difficult financial decisions to furlough or lay off employees.

Rosa added that as of April 1, no full-time employee of the parish had yet gone without pay. Rosa said Mechlinski was still receiving pay for any personal or sick time off that she had not yet used in the year, as were the other employees. She said Mechlinski and all other employees’ benefits will be covered by the parish for the duration of the pandemic.

“We're just continuing to pray for all those that have been affected,” Rosa said.

Rayanne Bennett, director of communications in the Diocese of Trenton, told CNA that furloughs were an “unfortunate necessity” due to the coronavirus pandemic, as the drop in donations at the parish level also affects the financial stability of the diocese.

Bennett said that the diocese will pay for the health insurance of all furloughed employees for three months “at minimum,” and has advised all furloughed staff to apply for unemployment benefits through new federal coronavirus benefits.  

“We are doing all that we can and will continue to give this our best effort. While there is great uncertainty at this time, it is our hope that we can restore our parishes, schools and diocesan operations to full staffing once the current emergency has passed,” Bennett said.

Mechlinski said she’s unsure of what comes next. She’s hoping that the terms of her furlough become more clear, and she plans to look into what federal aid she may qualify for. A friend of hers, who was recovering from coronavirus with his wife, set up a GoFundMe page to support her.

“He really stepped out and said, ‘Listen, I need to do something for you.’ So he put together a GoFundMe, which I thought was really sweet,” she said. “It's going to be the angels among us that are all going to help us to get through. The community that continues to lift everyone up, and whatever means of support that people find in their hearts is a blessing.”

Ministry is also a passion for Emily Davenport, 23, who served as a full-time missionary with LifeTeen last year in Georgia before moving to Sandusky, Ohio in September for a job as a youth minister.

The position had been vacant for about a year and a half, Davenport said, and she’s spent most of this year building a youth program back up from scratch.

But now, she’s back home in St. Louis, living with her parents and her 19 year-old seminarian brother, after she was laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we have been told is that we're laid off until Sunday Masses resume, so as far as we know, the plan and the hope is that we're all rehired,” Davenport said.

“But I also know that shortly before we got laid off, we were told nobody was going to get laid off. And so it's like everything feels very unpredictable,” she added.

Davenport said she doesn’t have hard feelings about being laid off, and that her pastor handled the situation well.

“Our pastor is fantastic, for the record,” she said. “He's a really wonderful man. He's really... trying very, very hard to be prudent for the future of the parish. And so almost as soon as public Masses were canceled, most of our parish staff was either laid off or (had) hours cut. He was an accountant before he was a priest, so he has a lot more managerial foresight than I think...a lot of pastors do.”

Davenport said when her pastor called to tell her the news, he explained to her how she could apply for unemployment benefits.

The parish is also covering Davenport’s health insurance for the pandemic at no cost to her, and because Davenport had been living in parish-provided housing, and has now moved back home with her parents, she doesn’t owe rent anywhere.

“I see them trying to do everything they can. It's just a sucky situation,” she said.

Fr. Monte Hoyles, the pastor of the Catholic Parishes of Sandusky, the tri-parish conglomerate where Davenport had worked, told CNA he hoped that he could bring his staff back as soon as possible.

“I mean, (laying off staff) is not something you want to do. Who would want to do that?” he said.

“But with very little money coming in and salaries to pay...until we can get back (to public Masses) this was the only way to ensure that we're able to continue what things we can do for right now,” Hoyles said, adding that the parishes are covering health insurance for all laid-off employees who qualified for it.

“I told my employees from the three parishes and also our cemeteries...I want to bring you back as absolutely soon as I possibly can,” Hoyles said.

Davenport said she feels blessed because she has her family as a safety net, and her dad’s job is pretty secure. But she still has bills to pay, and she doesn’t want to rely on her family for long.

“I was on ‘operation trying to be an independent adult’, but at least for now, I'm trying to take care of my cable bill, and the other things like...car insurance and my car payment,” she said.

“Maybe the bank will be able to let me wait a month or two before paying car payments, in the hope that my job would be back and I'd be able to just pick up where I left off,” she added.

She said she hopes to return to ministry, but that all depends on how things go in the near future with the Church and the pandemic.

“I know I'll be okay for a few months, but after those few months, I'd have to start finding other ways to take care of those bills.”

Cassandra Tkaczow is another Church employee facing a layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tkaczow was in her second year as an assistant campus minister at Alfred State and Alfred University in New York until March 18, when she was laid off.

“The students were on spring break when everything really started to explode here in New York state,” Tkaczow said. One of her students called her to explain that she wouldn’t be coming back for the semester, but the school’s official policy had not yet been decided.

A few days later, Alfred State College and Alfred University announced that the students would be allowed to come back to campus to collect their belongings, but that all classes would be taking place online.

At first, Tkaczow said, it seemed like she would be getting paid through the end of the semester, and she would just be moving her ministry online. Just days after that plan was discussed, she was laid off.

“Both of us (Tkaczow and her boss) had a suspicion, with the bankruptcy of the diocese in Buffalo that we would not be coming back for the next semester, but we didn't expect it to be this soon,” she said. The Diocese of Buffalo filed for bankruptcy last year due to sexual abuse lawsuits.

According to a statement from the Diocese of Buffalo provided to CNA, the coronavirus pandemic accelerated diocesan plans of financial reorganization.

“While we deeply regret the very personal impact that this process of realignment will have on dedicated employees of the Catholic Center, we must assess how best to deploy the resources of the Diocese in ways that reflect responsible stewardship and which offer the greatest benefit for our parishes,” Fr. Peter Kalaus, vicar general and moderator of the curia for the diocese, said in a statement.

“We anticipate that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will have a severe impact on parishes and exacerbate the financial challenges that the Diocese is already confronting. It is why we are accelerating our plans to better align the functions of the Catholic Center with the needs of our parishes,” he added.

According to the statement, 21 employees have been laid off or furloughed and 3 people moved from full-time to part-time. Health insurance will be covered by the diocese through April, after which time employees will either need to find different insurance or pay premiums directly to the diocese.

Tkaczow has since moved back home with her parents, who also live in New York. Like Davenport, her housing had been provided, and so rent is not a worry right now.

Tkaczow said while she understands from a financial standpoint why her position was eliminated, she feels bad for her students.
“I also couldn't help but think, how could they do this to the students? Because they just completely got rid of the campus ministry program, because of the bankruptcy. And with it being this early, how could they do that to them? How are they going to go forward in the coming semesters and years?”

For now, she’s been continuing to minister remotely to her students even without pay. She’s leading a rosary and social hour on Thursdays, and on Mondays she’s leading a Bible study.

While Tkaczow has a degree in computer science, she said her passion is for ministry, and while she may have to find another job to pay the bills for a time, “if God calls me to be in campus ministry or youth minister again, I would not hesitate in saying yes.”

The small parishes of St. Mary in Bloomfield, New Mexico and St Rose of Lima in Blanco New Mexico, in the Diocese of Gallup, have fared slightly better in the coronavirus fallout.

Fr. Josh Mayer, pastor of both parishes, told CNA that he expects to be able to pay his employees for the next six months or so, even if extreme social distancing measures for the pandemic continue.

“Our parishes are in a very blessed position to be able to take care of our staff for a while,” Mayer told CNA.

Mayer said due to canceled Masses, regular tithes to the parish are down to about a third of what they normally are. That could pick up slightly as more parishioners adjust to online donations, but for the most part, a lot of his parishioners haven’t taken to that in recent years, he said.

But the parish is still in a position to pay its staff for a while, and Mayer said he has plenty for them to do.

“I’ve got lots of projects I can give our people to do. Our maintenance guy has to come in and work on stuff here...even when buildings aren't being used, they need upkeep,” he said.

“And we're figuring out...how our parish kind of shifts some of our activities to different categories I guess. I mean a lot of stuff that we do with parishioners, we can still do. It just has to look really different,” he said.

Mayer said he was touched by the generosity of his financial manager, Sally Bales, who took a look at the books and the decreased donations and offered to donate her salary back to the parish for the time being so that other staff could remain on payroll.

“We’re just hoping that we can keep everybody employed in the meantime, so something like what Sally did is a huge boon for that,” he said.

“It definitely helps take care of the other parishioners or the other staff and helps ensure that we can keep them employed.”

Bales told CNA that because she and her husband are retired, she decided to donate her salary back for a while, to help younger staff members who are raising families and are relying on their jobs as their main source of income.

“The other staff members are younger, of course, than I am, and that's their sole income, so it's a lot harder picture for them than it is for me,” she said.

Bales, who manages the finances of both parishes, said that one of the parishes has a significantly higher percentage of online donations than the other.

“The parish that had more involvement online has not been as adversely affected as the one that people typically give cash at Sunday Mass,” she said.

“That's one thing I shared with Father, so that he can maybe encourage people to do more online giving. Our expenses don't change much whether we have Mass or not, and yet our donations are definitely volatile whether we have a physical gathering or not,” she added.

Some parishioners have been mailing in donations, Bales added, and staff have been calling people to encourage them to move to online giving, since “we don't really see an end when this is going to wrap up.”

Bales said she’s grateful that the parishes had some money set aside, so that they are not relying on the current week’s donations to pay staff salaries.

“As it happens, the parishes that I support have been very conservative and have some money set aside. It's not like we have to have the money this week to pay the next week salary, so that's wonderful,” she said.

Bales added that while she and her husband will miss her income from the parish for the time, they realize it isn’t something they need as much as other people on staff do.

“It's money. It would delay things we would want, but not things that we need. I think that's the difference,” she said.

“I think that actually, people that are retired or are in a better position to support the parish than the young employed people that are losing their jobs or having their time cut back,” she said. 

“And so I think it's a time for people that do have a regular income coming in to step up their donations. Usually, you think of someone on a fixed income is on the short end of the stick, but in this situation, we're really in a better position than someone who's currently earning their keep.”

Tags: Catholic News, Coronavirus

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