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Congregations as Employers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jan Gartner

Minister stands with his family at Service of Living Tradition, General Assembly

How can your congregation be a good employer during the COVID-19 outbreak? Caring for staff is an opportunity to model your values and spirit for the congregation, to demonstrate the kindness, creativity, and interdependence that these days ask of us.

This page includes general information to help you support your staff during the pandemic. See also Human Resources Questions about Virtual Operations.

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Values

  • Kindness and compassion: Leaders and supervisors, be gentle and generous with each other and with your staff.
  • Interdependence: We're all in this together. Leaders and staff need each other now more than ever. Encouraging each person's own self-care will help keep people at their best to serve others. Are there opportunities to partner and share the load with neighboring congregations?
  • Equity: Keep in mind your staff most in need and those in marginalized and/or vulnerable communities, including those who are at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus - or live with someone high-risk. Check your assumptions.
  • Creativity: What can be done differently? Or not at all? Innovation can be time-consuming: giving things up and accepting less than perfect outcomes is part of the discipline of being creative.
  • Resilience: May our individual and collective commitment to our faith and its values enable us to adapt to new realities with grit and grace.

Retaining Staff

Our June 2020 resource, Congregational Staffing and Finances for July and Beyond, emphasizes the importance of retaining staff in these challenging times when so much ministry is needed. It includes guidance on engaging staff creatively, budgeting, and taking advantage of federal programs, as well as a framework for considering staff reductions, if necessary.

Unemployment Insurance

Unemployment benefits are administered by states, and each state makes its own rules about eligibility and benefit amounts. In most states, churches and religious organizations are exempt from having to pay into the unemployment system. (To our knowledge, Oregon and New York are exceptions.) If your congregation isn't paying for unemployment insurance (through the state or a private carrier), your employees will not be eligible for unemployment benefits if they lose their job. This lack of safety net is one more reason to keep people on payroll as long as possible.

Unemployment Benefits During COVID-19

See the information about the CARES Act on our Federal Policies and Actions Related to COVID-19 page; the CARES Act include Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to workers not traditionally eligible, including church workers. See also Are Church Employees Eligible for Unemployment Benefits? (ChurchLaw&Tax).

Governmental Policies and Actions

See our Federal Polices and Actions Related to COVID-19 page for summaries of federal initiatives relevant to employees and their employers.

Many states have their own laws and programs. We are unable to track and communicate state-level information.

Finances and Stewardship

Your congregation's personnel costs (salaries, benefits, professional expenses, and payroll costs) likely represent about 70% of the total operating budget. We know that these are uncertain times, financially and otherwise. Some resources and considerations:

Personnel Policies and Employment Agreements

  • You must do at least as well for your employees as your personnel policies dictate - but you are always free to do better. For instance, you might suspend the regular policy limits on sick time.
  • This is the UUA's Sample Personnel Manual for congregations. Review your current policies for sick time, working from home, medical leave, etc. Again, this is the minimum you need to provide to your staff.
  • The same applies to any kind of employment agreement for your minister or other staff. You must do at least what you commit to in your employment agreements. You are welcome to do better.

Working From Home (WFH)

Working from home is difficult - even impossible - for some staff because of the nature of their work. For others, it's possible, but complicated by family responsibilities or lack of technology.

Supervision and Teams

  • We have many resources for supervising and leading teams on our Congregational Staff Teams page. Specific to the pandemic, see Self-Care and Staff Care: Support for Supervisors During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  • Resources from The Management Center
  • Ministers and boards, make a strong statement to staff that shows your commitment to their well-being and that of the community as a whole. The UUA Guidance on Gathering includes advice for staff.
  • In this highly disruptive time, it is critical for supervisors to stay in touch with their staff. What do staff need? What's emerging? Are they taking care of themselves? Supervisors, check-in with your whole team, perhaps weekly, and frequently touch base with individual staff.
  • You need the voices of your team at the table. Congregational work, especially right now, is systemic, interconnected. Involve lead staff in programmatic and other decision-making - or at least give them the option. Each staff member will offer unique perspectives, concerns, and ideas. Consider:
    • Staff need to think – together: What is truly necessary? What do your members most need from you?
    • Nearly every action you take (and don't take) has implications for children, youth, and families.
    • Technology and communications needs are changing quickly.
    • As congregations move to online worship, are you seeing virtual visitors?
    • Are there new opportunities for using music and musicians? How is the choir doing?
    • How are partnerships emerging - with other congregations and/or community organizations - to meet this moment?
  • Your staff are leaders, modelers, and tone-setters for the congregation. How are you openly modeling your best values - kindness, flexibility, trust, teamwork, good humor, and so on? Even in these times of physical distancing, congregants are observing how staff work together.
  • If you are hiring for an open position: Job Interviews Go Virtual in response to COVID-19, Society for Human Resources Management.

Benefits

  • UUA Health Plan: Be sure participants know about these Benefit Expansions in Response to COVID-19, including waived fees on telemedicine visits and early prescription refills.
  • UUA Group Insurance Plans (Dental, Life, Long-Term Disability): Remind participants that Guardian includes an Employee Assistance Plan, offering legal, financial, and debt counseling, among other services.
  • UUA Retirement Plan

For staff eligible for Employer Contributions:

  • Base the contribution calculation on each pay period's total remuneration, before any deductions for employee benefit plans' elective contributions, as reported on Form W-2. This includes the Housing Allowance for ministers.
  • Refer to your congregation's current Employer Participation Agreement to confirm your congregation's contribution percentage, and to determine if your Board elected any allowable exclusions of parts of compensation. (See item 4.)
  • The UUA Retirement Plan Committee has approved plan amendments consistent with the CARES Act. See our Federal Policies and Actions page, CARES section, about federal relief offered through the easing of retirement plan distribution and loan rules.

Other Resources

Check out the main Congregations as Employers page of LeaderLab for our standing resources on compensation, hiring and supporting staff, and much more.

Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility (CDC)

The UUA Office of Church Staff Finances publishes a monthly newsletter with timely personnel-related information and resources. (We might send mid-month issues during the outbreak.) Sign up for Compensation and Staffing News if you are a supervisor, a staff member, or a lay leader whose role supports staff (e.g., board, finance, personnel). Back issues are available on our Publications page.

The Coronavirus Resource Center from the McLane Middleton law firm includes pages for assorted employment topics ranging from compensation to leave to information security.

About the Author

Jan Gartner

Jan is passionate about helping congregations live out their values within their walls!...

For more information contact comp@uua.org.