Layoffs During Pandemic Retraumatize Former Foster Youth Let Go from Major California Advocacy Organization

In better times, California Youth Connection employees embrace to celebrate a staff member’s last day. Photo courtesy of Christina Parker.

Last week, a community advocacy coordinator for one of the nation’s most prominent foster youth organizations started building a webinar to provide young people in northern California access to self-soothing techniques as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the state. 

With much of the world sequestered, falling ill and losing work, Makayla James planned to spread the virtual message that there are healthy coping mechanisms to ward off fear and panic for those who have no families, offering some reassurance that they will get through this.

Then, an email landed in her inbox: after nearly two years working for California Youth Connection (CYC), 25-year-old James was being laid off. 

“It’s just unfortunate that a place where we found community and family in, that this is kind of the treatment that we have received because we’ve spent the last few years fighting for stability,” said James. “So not to see that mirrored is a very difficult thing.”

The three-decade-old California Youth Connection, under the leadership of Bay Area-based Executive Director Haydée Cuza, informed staff and the public on March 24 that the global pandemic was an opportune time to launch “CYC 3.0,” a move that involved laying off a total of 10 of its 17 employees. The majority are former foster youth.

On Monday evening, the CYC board of directors announced Cuza’s resignation, less than a week after she let most of her employees go.  An email sent to an internal list after 7 p.m. Monday and signed by the entire board stated it was “saddened to witness the deep concern and hardship that has resulted from the layoff notices.”

Previously, the nonprofit group’s board of directors had said relatively little publicly about the staff lay-offs or how they intended to respond to Cuza’s actions. On Monday, an East Coast public relations firm specializing in crisis management responded to further questions sent to the board from The Chronicle of Social Change, saying that the board would  release a statement on Tuesday.

CYC’s former statewide policy coordinator, Christina Parker, 25, was among those laid off. Parker had only recently been rallying colleagues to produce more webinars and create “virtual spaces” where CYC could step up in a new way for the community of foster youth struggling now more than ever. 

Instead, Parker ended up feeling as burned as Parker had once felt as a former foster youth.

“For me, this was all of the emotions and things that I felt as a youth who was a part of the system, who felt abandoned by the system, who felt neglected by the system, who felt instability throughout my years of college – all those emotions really rose again,” Parker said.

Founded in 1988 by a small group of young people, CYC is now a highly-regarded advocacy group with 900 members, a more than $2.5 million annual budget and assets of roughly $600,000. The group that has long been the voice of young people in the nation’s largest foster care system stunned its partner agencies last week with the news it had chosen to “restructure” its operations by laying off more than half its staff. The move came as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools, businesses and transportation, and statewide unemployment claims exploded to 1 million, leaving those with foster care histories more vulnerable than ever. 

Eight employees were laid-off over email on March 24; staff pictures that remained on the group’s website on Friday were gone Monday, with just a half-dozen faces remaining. Two other employees had been let go several weeks earlier during the organization’s annual “Day at the Capitol” event, according to members and former staff. 

In a Facebook post last week, Cuza – who was one of CYC’s founding members as a teenager and had been executive director since 2016 – said she saw the present as the best time to “reconstruct our organization internally to one that is youth-centered and built to transform the system.” 

The laid-off employees were told they could reapply for jobs under the newly reconstructed organization, at an unspecified time. CYC assured them they would receive a one-time $2,000 severance payout and will be able to access their employer-sponsored health care until the end of April.  

But prior to being laid-off, the employees had accepted a furlough of 15 hours per week, so the sudden change in direction startled them. Now, rather than counseling other desperate young adults, they would soon be in need of food and shelter themselves.

“Unfortunately, with this trauma, we’re back into survival mode again,” said 25-year-old Jordan Sosa, former Foster Youth Intern on Capitol Hill who had been CYC’s statewide legislative coordinator for about a year and a half.

The former employees said in interviews that amid the global health crisis, they are now scrambling to figure out how they will pay rent and receive long-term healthcare benefits.

Like Parker and Sosa, James said she was a member of the organization before becoming a staff member. She described CYC as “a community and a family” that had helped her thrive, and that’s what has made her current situation all the more troubling and confusing. Even though she’s no longer employed by the advocacy group, James said she feels a connection and duty to the youth she served while working there. 

“So in the midst of me trying not to break down and holding myself together,” James said, “I’m having members calling me breaking down, and I’m having to process that with them.”

There are other immediate struggles as well. Sosa and Parker share a lease on an apartment in Sacramento that is going to run out at the end of April. Now the two are juggling a lot of questions: Should they negotiate the lease, or hope that a county-wide moratorium on evictions will allow them more time? If they can find a place to land in Southern California, where each grew up, will they even be able to rent a moving truck during a statewide lockdown? 

Jordan Sosa, who was laid-off by California Youth Connection last week: “Unfortunately, with this trauma, we’re back into survival mode again.” Photo: Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute

And though former staff members have each built professional networks that would, under different circumstances, likely be rife with opportunities, with the nation’s unemployment claims at 3.3 million and growing, now is not a good time to be on the job market in most industries. 

James said she’s reached out to her whole network. “And everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, when we open up shop again, and when this pandemic is over, reach out to us again, and we’ll be in contact with you.’ 

“And it’s unfortunate because we are stuck,” she said. “We’re like sitting ducks.”

In a Monday email to The Chronicle the morning before she resigned, Cuza stated that she could not respond to issues the laid off employees may now face. “While I cannot comment on individual personnel issues,” Cuza stated, “organizations across the country, including ours, are being tasked with incredibly tough decisions that will ultimately be guided by the best interests of those we serve.”

 Cuza’s decision to conduct layoffs last week was apparently done in an unusual manner, without prior notice or approval from the nonprofit agency’s board of directors.

None of the eight board members responded to requests for additional comments Monday. Instead, a reporter received a call from Loretta Kane, a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based Camino Relations, on the board’s behalf. Kane declined to answer when she was employed by CYC. 

On its website, Camino describes itself as “a leader in addressing highly contentious social issues” and boasts in large font its key asset: “Turning crisis into opportunity.” The firm, a winner of the 2017 “Best in Crisis” award, alerts clients “to potential negative media narratives” and provides recommendations “to curb possible negative influence.” 

The majority of the nonprofit California Youth Connections’ funding in recent years has come from government grants, totaling $1.8 million in each of the past two fiscal years. The group is also funded by a number of prominent charitable foundations. According to a recent audit, in 2018 CYC received between $38,452 and $187,500 from the California Wellness Foundation; the Walter S. Johnson Foundation; the Zellerbach Family Foundation, and the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Foundation, among others.

CYC’s publicly available tax filings show Cuza had received an annual $130,000 salary.

The week CYC laid off its staff, California saw a skyrocketing number of residents out of work and needing help, with the Employment Development Department reporting 186,809 claims for benefits, up from 57,606 the week before, according to federal statistics. The totals that week were 363 percent higher than claims processed during the same week last year, the Los Angeles Times reported, with no end in sight.

According to California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), the state has received 1 million applications for unemployment benefits. Nationwide, claims are five times greater than any single week reported to the U.S. Labor Department since it began recording the data in 1967, the newspaper reported.

The economic fallout from the statewide shelter-in-place orders is believed to have slowed, but far from stopped a growing number of positive cases of coronavirus infection in California. As of Sunday, there are now more than 5,700 infected residents, including 65 children, according to the state Department of Public Health. More than 130 state residents have died after being infected with the virus.  

Amid the ongoing crisis, CYC members say the group is needed now more than ever, as foster youth lose their jobs, housing and meager incomes that allowed them to buy food. And despite their own immediate challenges, the former CYC staff members said they hope foster youth across the state will continue to have the same opportunities they did at CYC – to develop into leaders, craft policy and legislation and build support networks. 

In the statement announcing Cuza’s resignation last night, the board indicated it is “in the process of reviewing the staff reduction and we plan to take action to address our findings, first with those impacted, in the coming days.”

“It doesn’t matter for me if I get my job back or not,” Parker said. “I just want to make sure that our members are supported, that they are uplifted, that they continue to do badass work throughout the next couple of years. I’ll be on the sidelines, but I’ll be rooting for them.”

Jeremy Loudenback can be reached at jeremyloudenback@chronicleofsocialchange.org. Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org. Editor-in-Chief John Kelly contributed to this report.

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