Action Agency cuts pay to make up for $1.3 million deficit

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 20, 2017

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — Employees at the Salisbury-Rowan Community Action Agency have been asked to take a 10 percent cut in pay as the non-profit organization struggles to make up a $1.3 million deficit.

The cuts, affecting administrative positions as well as teachers at Head Start, Early Head Start and other employees in the five counties the agency serves, were announced in early January. Thursday night, teachers and center directors packed into the small boardroom on West Bank Street to air their grievances to the board of directors.

Board Parlimentarian Carlos Watson and Board Chair Dr. Donna White Cook held throughout the three-hour meeting that situation is a recurring deficit, caused when the agency was required to make unexpected and unbudgeted adjustments to meet funding standards. Watson said that, for example, Head Start locations were required to switch out playground mulch from wood chips to rubber, or repair all broken desks in the agencies five-county area.

In an e-mailed statement, White Cook said,

“Like many non-profit organizations, the simple fact is that our funding sources are limited. Nevertheless, the SRCAA, Inc. is doing everything possible to ensure employee salaries return to their normal levels. The agency’s employees are our greatest resource. SRCAA values its employee hard work, loyalty and dedication to the families we serve.”

It’s an issue that they hold started in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, with a roughly $650,000 deficit. In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, an additional roughly $800,000 deficit was added. In November, the agency was instructed to make up the resulting $1.3 million before October 2017 or face the consequences.

“If we do not address that deficit we could end up losing the agency…We had to take some drastic steps,” Watson said.

At first, the board considered a mandatory furlough for the first and last 30 minutes of the day. However, Watson said after speaking to Head Start administration and to a lawyer, they chose to cut pay by 10 percent across the board.

“If we’re able to get out of this, we never have to come here again,” he said.

But employees are frustrated by the cut, saying they feel as though they are not valued. A 10 percent cut equaled about $200 a month, one employee shared. Many others spoke up about concerns paying childcare, student loans or other bills. At one point during the meeting, an employee yelled out that the cuts “took almost half of what I need for medical.” Another held a sign that said “Teachers’ lives matter, say no to deductions.”

Several spokespeople spoke in a comment period that lasted more than an hour as they argued for themselves and their fellow teachers, and demanded transparency and another course of action.

“You’re making us accountable for someone else’s actions,” teacher Cyndy Compton said.

Compton asked how the agency expected to attract qualified staff to fill numerous vacant positions when the pay rate was so low, and its employees did not feel valued.

“To take staff money is a slap in the face,” one employee said.

Several speakers accused the agency of mismanaging funds and speculated that someone, somewhere, had “sticky fingers.” White-Cook responded to the comment, saying that the agency is audited each year, with the results sent to the federal government. This year, she had auditors double check the results.

“They have not found any signs of embezzlement,” she said.

A copy of the most recent auditor’s report and findings has been requested by the Post.

Those speaking Thursday evening agreed on one thing: they loved their jobs, and wanted to be there for the children they served. But they also needed to provide for their own families and to know that they were valued as employees.

“I’m not going to say the agency is bad,” one teacher said, “but there’s bad things happening.”

Employees were given the news right after Christmas, he said, and were not given the option to weigh in on the decision. He, and others, called for a furlough — saying they would rather take a cut in hours than lose a flat 10 percent.

East Spencer Center Director Shara Streater-Dearmon challenged the board’s assertion that it had spoken to administrators about what employees would prefer.

“That absolutely never happened,” she said.

In addition, the centers are already understaffed, forcing employees to fill more than one position. Streater-Dearmon said that this year she worked as a teacher, a cafeteria worker and a bus monitor in addition to her regular duties. And then was asked to take a pay cut.

“I have a master’s degree,” she said, “but I could go to Aldi’s right now and bag groceries and make the same amount…I have teachers who can’t afford to pay child care.”

She and other staff recommended switching suppliers, cooking student meals on site, moving smaller centers into larger buildings already in use by the agency or operating on a 10-month calendar as ways to save money. Staff also called for the agency to hire a financial officer.

“If things were brought to us, you would have gotten some of these ideas,” Streater-Dearmon said.

Watson and the rest of the board agreed to look into furloughs, but expressed concerns that they may run into other violations concerning labor laws, which would prevent the agency from allowing a reduction in hours. Until it can figure something out, however, the pay cuts will stay in place.

During its meeting, the board took other steps to save money where possible, including saving through attrition and switching over its benefits plan.

“If anyone has an idea how we can fix this…please tell us,” Watson said

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.