Congregations as Employers During the COVID-19 Pandemic
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. We will update this page regularly, as new questions emerge and new resources become available.
- Be sure to read Pacing Ourselves in a Pandemic, by Rev. Cecilia Kingman. "Do less in order to do what will be necessary all too soon."
- Coming soon! Stay tuned for a comprehensive memo containing recommendations for congregations regarding staffing and finances.
- 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.
- Keep paying: For the immediate future, please continue paying your staff - whether they are sick or well, 4 hours/week or 40, whether they can work from home or not. For timesheet and payroll purposes, create a category for paid leave. Some congregations are continuing to pay 1099 workers, as well. We recognize that there are financial uncertainties for congregations, as well as for their individual staff. We urge you to keep people's paychecks coming for now. (See Finances and Stewardship, below.)
- Other Duties As Assigned: We joke about this line in job descriptions. But now is the time when a staff member might be asked to do something that's not part of their routine work. When you are paying them for their time and it is within their skill set, it is generally appropriate to make new use of people's talents. Although we expect that many staff will go "above and beyond" in a time of crisis, be sensitive to asking people to work on a sustained basis at a level significantly higher than their current rate of pay.
- Nonexempt Staff: The Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to keep records of daily and weekly hours worked by all employees who don't meet specific exemption criteria. Minimum wage and overtime standards must also be met. (Some states have stricter criteria than the federal.)
- Exempt Staff: Exempt staff do not need to formally track hours, but it is likely that at least some of exempt staff are putting in extra time. You are not required by law to pay them, although you can. You might instead provide offset time - extra time off in a future pay period.
- Allow for Flexibility: Some staff will be working different hours, doing different things in different ways.
About 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. 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.
State law is very difficult for us to monitor with so many states, all the more so as there are often exceptions for small employers and/or churches. If we are alerted to clear and reliable information that's applicable to particular states, we can post it here.
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:
- Read about Stewardship in a Time of Pandemic, and note that the UUA Stewardship and Development Office is hosting Stewardship Salons twice a month through May.
- Some congregations have funds set aside for emergencies. A pandemic is an emergency.
- Be mindful of the rules and processes governing your endowment or any restricted funds. See this Endowment Funds LeaderLab article.
- From Stewardship for Us
- Pledge Drive Communications Now: Intelligence from the Symposium, by Mark Ewert, March 23, 2020
- Stewardship as Community Care, by Barry Finkelstein, March 19, 2020
Personnel Policies and Employment Agreements
- In all things, 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)
Do not wait until the virus has taken hold in your area to urge your staff to stay home. By the time you know it is in your town, it has been there for some time.
Your staff may need to start working from home with little notice - potentially even prevented from leaving their homes or entering your building to retrieve things. Have a conversation now. What should staff bring home with them? What else do they need to make WFH as productive as possible.
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.
Ask each staff member what they need and do your best to accommodate. Do all you can to enable employees to work comfortably and productively.
Allow for flexibility of hours and days as possible, while being clear about expected deliverables and availability for team meetings.
Even more than in a standard workplace, telecommuters tend to have different work styles and patterns. Especially for those new to WFH, let them find their rhythm. No judgment.
Recognize that some things won't get done - or won't get done on their usual timetable.
- Articles and Resources:
Supervision and Teams
We have many resources for supervising and leading teams on our Congregational Staff Teams page. How do you support staff who are suddenly working remotely and under new, stressful conditions?
- No matter what the restrictions are in your locality at this time, no staff member should feel pressure to come to the building to work. 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.
- In this highly disruptive and quickly changing time, it is critical for supervisors to stay in touch with their staff. What do people need? What are their priorities? What's emerging? Are they taking care of themselves? Consider a brief check-in with your whole team, perhaps two or three times a week, 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? What are the most important things to do with your precious and finite time and energy? (See Pacing Ourselves in a Pandemic.)
- 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.
- 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.)
Check out the main Congregations as Employers page of LeaderLab for our standing resources on compensation, hiring and supporting staff, and much more.
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.