Poets House Board Responds to Former Staff
On November 16, Poets House was forced to cease operations. We believe it’s important that you better understand the situation we were in. And we want to address the rumors and accusations circulating.
We deny the allegations being made by several former employees. It is simply not the case, in any way whatsoever, that Poets House, a vibrant organization for the last 30 years, would shutter due to staff complaints or an interest to unionize.
When employee concerns about workplace practices were raised, those concerns were brought to the Board and an independent investigator was hired to interview current and former staff. The report demonstrated that the claims were insubstantial and recommended training and updated personnel policies, which we took seriously and began to act upon.
Like many not-for-profits, these past eight months were dire for us financially. We had been transparent with our staff about this: they had been told in April, in June, and in August that downsizing was likely.
We managed to raise enough funds to pay staff their full salaries during the eight months of the pandemic. However, by September our operating deficit was close to $100K. Without our annual benefit and other sources of income we normally rely on to stay afloat, and with payroll obligations of $17,000 per week, we could not keep pace with expenses.
By November, continued expenses brought the deficit for this year to $250K. Emergency funds had been spent down. We had already reorganized responsibilities so that all staff members could be kept on at their full salaries, even as other organizations in similar straits furloughed staff and cut hours and benefits.
Throughout the summer we reviewed budgets and talked about the need to downsize. On November 4, we were informed that the staff was forming a union. The temporary closure of Poets House is due to depleted funds, and not for any other reason. We believe absolutely in the right of individuals to unionize. This has never an issue for us. Our operating funds and reserves were almost depleted.
On November 16, when the staff was let go, we drew from remaining reserve funds to continue to pay salaries until November 28, pay our share of health care until the end of the year, pay staff for all unused vacation days, and offer each staff member with a severance package reflecting their length of employment; some staff had been with Poets House for over a decade. If we had continued with business as usual, we would not have had the resources to offer and afford any of this. Poets House leadership included itself in this downsizing: its longtime executive director is retiring in early 2021. Only one staff member will remain in a caretaker role to tie up loose ends and manage the handoff to eventual new leadership.
The temporary closure of Poets House is hardly out of the ordinary given the financial strain that has hit so many nonprofits during the coronavirus pandemic. We wish this hadn’t been the case, but, unfortunately, it was the grim reality.