As Pandemic Set In, Orthodox Union Furloughed 125 Staffers — A Quarter Of Its Workforce

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FILE - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to Orthodox Union students and representatives urging state legislative members to consider non-public school STEM funding at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 1, 2017, in Albany, N.Y. (Orthodox Union Photo/Hans Pennink

NEW YORK (JTA) – Orthodox communities were hit early and hard by the coronavirus pandemic. It turns out that the layoffs that have emerged as a side effect also came early to the Orthodox world.

The Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox synagogues and a major certifier of kosher food, laid off or furloughed 125 employees in early April — approximately a quarter of its workforce.

Most of those affected were furloughed, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the organization, which also runs programs for teens, college students and young adults with disabilities as well as synagogue-related services.

The move came early in the pandemic, before many other Jewish organizations were forced to impose layoffs or furloughs as the economy dipped. But by Passover, which began April 6, it became clear that much of the Orthodox Union’s work — particularly the in-person programming run by its youth department — would not be possible due to social distancing.

“Like many in the not-for-profit community, we have had to realign our staffing models and furlough staff to reflect the new economic and programming realities, particularly the reduction in programming and donation revenue and the change to virtual programming,” Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the O.U., said in a statement.

The organization declined to comment on the number of furloughs and layoffs imposed.

About 75 people who worked for the National Council of Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s youth group, were furloughed or laid off. Donations to the youth group had dropped sharply since March, multiple sources told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Furloughed employees were told that the move was being made as a result of the COVID-19 situation and that, with the federal supplement to state unemployment benefits, most would not see a substantial loss in income during the furlough period. In a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Fagin said he hoped the organization would eventually be able to “return to previous levels of staffing.”

Furloughed employees were offered loans of three weeks’ pay while they waited for unemployment benefits to kick in. They also were told that the organization hoped to rehire those who had been furloughed in the next several months, though no guarantees were made.

The prognosis for any in-person youth activity in the imminent future has worsened since then. And more Jewish organizations are slashing their payrolls in anticipation of diminished donations and reduced capacity to perform in-person services.

Unlike many other Jewish organizations, the O.U. has a guaranteed revenue stream in its kosher-certification agency.

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