Laid-off church workers lack safety net

In a difficult economy, churches suffer the same way that other small businesses do. Income is down in many places and that means that expenses need to be cut. Often that means cutting salary expenses. The problem is that many people who are laid off from church positions are discovering they lack the same safety net that other laid-off workers can count upon.

The Hampton Roads Pilot points out:

"For those who are made jobless, unemployment benefits are a big piece of the social safety net. In Virginia, payments range from $54 to $378 weekly. Benefits are available only to people whose employers paid the unemployment tax.

Jane Dembert made that discovery after getting laid off by Christ and St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Norfolk earlier this year. Dembert was the church's director of communications and had worked there 17 years when she lost her job. She filed for state unemployment benefits and was denied.

The Rev. C. Berkley Ford of Christ and St. Luke's said the cutback was a painful choice. He said the church was grappling with lower revenue and higher demand for services such as its soup kitchen. He gave his own cost-of-living pay raise back to the church.

'We have no say over whether or not an employee who loses their job for economic reasons is entitled to collect unemployment insurance,' he said. 'That's determined by the state agency.'

Dembert is allowed to stay on the church's health insurance policy for 18 months, though she must pay 100 percent of the premiums.

Coleman Walsh, chief administrative law judge with the employment commission, said his experience is that most people don't know faith-based groups are exempt from unemployment taxes."

Read the full article here.

Are we really being fair in the Church when we try to hold costs down by avoiding paying unemployment taxes? Is this something that congregations need to be able to opt into?

Comments (6)

During the Carter administration, unemployment benefits were briefly extended to church employees even though churches had not paid into them.

Churches are always asking for exemptions from civil laws. For example exemption from anti-discrimination laws in hiring, exemption from property taxes, exemption from social security taxes for clergy (classified as self-employed and able to opt out of social security or pay it all themselves), the right to choose at whose weddings they will officiate, just to name a few special privileges.

It's part of the price faith communities pay, and frequently exploit, to uphold the first amendment and separation of church and state.

"Are we really being fair in the Church when we try to hold costs down by avoiding paying unemployment taxes? Is this something that congregations need to be able to opt into?"

No and yes. And I wonder if congregations (and dioceses) can already do so and don't. Does anyone know?

And, if they can't, can they purchase insurance on the private market at reasonable rates? (An insurer would have to protect itself so that you don't just opt in when you're about to fire your employees.)


Yes. In our diocese (California) most institutions, including parishes, pay for a private unemployment insurance plan for all employees. The cost is nominal.

One painful drawback this year is that church employees who lose health insurance aren't covered by COBRA. That means, while they get continuance at full premium, they get no benefit from the COBRA subsidy provided by the stimulus package.

I must confess to being surprised that some dioceses apparently don't require unemployment insurance for lay employees...

I should add that it may help in our situation that most of our diocesan congregations pay all employees (lay and ordained) through diocesan payroll. That may help pool for insurance purposes and help keep unemployment insurance premiums reasonable.


Sounds like folks in the Diocese of California have been reading their baptismal covenant. Other dioceses seeking to change their culture might want to look to the diocese as an example.

Readers, here is the form regarding "salary continuation (unemployment)" in the D. of California,

Here's what looks to be well documented and organized HR policy at that diocese:


I'd be interested in knowing how other dioceses measure up.

I was working for a denominational seminary (not Episcopal) and through it have unemployment insurance, which I need because endowment decline caused my position to be eliminated. Now, as I look for clergy positions, and other church positions, I hesitate because I won't have unemployment or anything to fall back on from a church job.

[Anonymity permitted of commenter -- eds.]

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