Financial woes throw Valley Crisis Center into turmoil

Employees of the Nampa shelter said they didn’t want to leave but had little choice when they didn’t get paid.

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comAugust 3, 2013 

Lisa Neal worked at Valley Crisis Center for 19 years, serving as director of the center’s 15-room, 63-bed facility.

She said that helping rape victims and families who’ve suffered domestic violence find new beginnings meant much more to her than money.

Last week, she and nine of her co-workers wept as they walked away from their jobs.

“I’m sorry it happened because we loved our jobs,” said Susan Champlin, 64, a residential adviser and overnight shelter manager for three years. “I thought this was going to be my last job.”

Seven of the women who walked out July 25 said that they didn’t feel they had any choice: Their paychecks were 10 days overdue, and the nonprofit’s managers couldn’t provide a date for when they’d be paid.

“It’s been late before, but never this late,” Neal said, explaining that “sporadic” delays usually were days, not weeks.

The crisis center is still operating — the crisis hotline, day care and other services are available — but the shelter had to be closed when the center lost more than half of its 17 employees. The board says its top priority is getting the center’s financial house in order.

“We’re trying to understand everything and get an overall picture of how this came to be,” said board President Mike Wagoner, a sergeant with the Nampa Police Department. “So we are better informed about how we can keep it from happening again.”

He said several factors, including reduced federal funding and fewer private donations, contributed to the “knuckleball” faced by the center. The center’s books are audited annually, Wagoner said.

The board met Thursday night. Wagoner said Friday that the center’s payroll is now up-to-date, but it has outstanding debt of at least $28,000. Employees picked up their checks Friday, state officials said.

The board hopes to reopen the shelter in two weeks. Wagoner said representatives from the Idaho Council on Domestic Violence and the Nampa Family Justice Center will be assisting in a reorganization.

“We are also working on new strategies for fundraising and are continuing to appeal to the public for their support and financial donations,” Wagoner said.

WARNING SIGNS

Staff concerns over the center’s finances have snowballed since spring, when workers were notified that their employer hadn’t forwarded employees’ premiums, deducted from their paychecks, for their Aflac supplemental health insurance. Champlin was notified in a July 5 letter that Aflac had canceled her policy, dashing her hopes of getting a broken tooth fixed.

Former workers say they had to turn away bill collectors empty-handed, and state officials came inquiring about unpaid taxes. A lien for $4,314 was filed July 26 against Valley Crisis Center for failing to pay unemployment insurance, according to the secretary of state. Wagoner said Friday that has been paid.

Workers said the absence of July 15 paychecks forced several of them to obtain high-interest “payday loans” to buy food and pay bills. The staff said they suggested layoffs to Director Yolanda Matos, offering to come back to work when there was money.

“We said, ‘Please let us help you,’ ” said Anna Mireles, a 38-year-old former case manager. She and another employee held a two-day hunger strike to raise public awareness and money, bringing in about $5,000 in community contributions.

Advised by state Department of Labor officials not to continue working without pay, the employees presented letters to the director demanding payment — and then left. The department said it has 10 formal claims from former employees for unpaid wages.

However, there are no previous claims for unpaid wages, according to the Department of Labor. Two other large facilities in the Valley that provide similar services — the Women’s and Children’s Alliance in Boise and Hope’s Door in Caldwell — have no history of claims filed by workers seeking unpaid wages, state officials said.

Eight women and 15 children staying at the Valley Crisis Center were relocated to Hope’s Door in Caldwell immediately after the July 25 walkout.

The 10-year-old Caldwell shelter typically has a waiting list of 15 to 25 for its 25-room, 98-bed facility, said Hope’s Door Executive Director Kim Ivacek. Those on the list will have to wait longer, although emergency beds are always available for those in immediate danger. The average stay is 78 days.

The WCA said it had 20 women on its waiting list Friday.

FUNDING SHORTFALL

Matos, the director of Valley Crisis Center for eight years, said she was shocked to see 10 employees abandon ship. She said they developed a “mob mentality,” with their fears playing off each other and causing panic.

The workers chafe at Matos’ account.

“We deal with crisis situations day in and day out,” Neal said. “We are very calm.”

Matos said the nonprofit, with an operating budget of roughly $500,000, did not get some expected federal grants. That came on top of an already tricky cash-flow situation: Much of its money comes from cost-reimbursement grants, which means the center doesn’t receive money until expenses are incurred and billed.

“I’ve always been able to come up with a plan,” said Matos, who’s been associated with the center for 16 years, including time as a counselor.

Matos said the shelter will reopen after she hires new staff. An ad for residential advisers was posted Tuesday on Craigslist; the listed pay was $8 an hour.

Wagoner and two other board members contacted for this story — Melissa Orcutt and Jackie Moffis, both employed at banks — said they stand behind Matos and her management of the center, which opened 30 years ago.

“She’s able to run that shelter probably better than anyone else,” Wagoner said.

Matos said, “It’s always a roller coaster. There are years when it’s good, and years when it’s really, really lean. It’s getting harder and harder to survive as a not-for-profit.”

Federal funding has been waning in recent years, a trend that will continue, said WCA Executive Director Beatrice Black.

The 102-year-old WCA has developed numerous sources of money. One-third of the agency’s $1.8 million operating budget comes from government grants, with the remainder from a variety of sources, including private contributions, fundraising, the WCA shop and fees for services.

Black, who came to the alliance five years ago after three decades of small-business experience, said she hasn’t had trouble making payroll. But belt-tightening measures were instituted a few years ago. Staff didn’t receive raises in 2009-10, and took leave days without pay from 2010 to 2012.

“It was what we had to do to operate during those tougher times,” Black said. “And we didn’t lose any services.”

ELIGIBLE FOR UNEMPLOYMENT?

Seven of the employees who walked out last week said they didn’t want to quit their jobs but were told by Department of Labor officials that working without pay could jeopardize unemployment benefits.

Each person must apply for benefits, and state claims specialists will determine whether they qualify, said Artie Holmes, program supervisor in the wage and hour unit at the Department of Labor.

Holmes said state law requires that employers pay workers at least once a month. Workers considering quitting a job should review their company’s policies; some require two weeks’ notice or the worker could lose pay for accrued vacation time.

The former crisis center workers say they would go back to their jobs in a heartbeat. Would the agency consider rehiring them?

“I don’t know that anyone has said there is a reason they can’t be rehired,” said Moffis, the board member.

She said she understands why the women walked off the job.

“I could not afford to stay if I wasn’t getting paid. I tried to put myself in their position,” Moffis said. “I have no bad feelings towards them for leaving, and I don’t believe that they do, either.”

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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