Two rounds of employee reductions due to the current pandemic have brought allegations of retaliation and mismanagement at the Utah Pride Center. Former employees complain that the Center is questionable with its finances, and has a lack of transparency in hiring and firing. Center leaders say the allegations are not only untrue but were duly investigated by outside professionals who found no wrongdoings by Center management.
The first round of restructuring occurred shortly after shutdowns were forced around the state because of the Coronavirus. On April 30, ten employees were let go as the Center adjusted its focus due to its forced closure and the questionable future of its largest fundraiser of the year — the Utah Pride Festival.
“This downsizing is happening as a result of COVID-19’s impact on our funding streams,” explained Center Executive Director Moolman at the time. “We are seeing slow and lower donor engagement, depressed economic outlook, large donor funds tied to the stock market, and the slow rollout of the PPP/SBA grants to non-profits.”
“This has become our reality,” he said.
On May 27, Liz Pitts, who was the community engagement director in charge of garnering sponsors and other donors for the Center and the Festival, sent an email to the members of the board of directors spelling out a long list of grievances, some of which she had given to the Center’s HR firm, Stratus.hr. In it, she wrote 29 questions, including everything from why, when the Center was seeing a banner year up until April, did it find itself in the position of laying off 40 percent of its staff, to the “cover-up” of the former operations director’s alleged “book doctoring” and “potential theft?”
“I believe in my heart that you have the best intentions and care sincerely about Utah’s LGBTQ+ community members. I also believe deeply in the mission and vision of the Utah Pride Center,” Pitts wrote. “So, I beg you, please investigate and take action on behalf of the remaining Pride Center staff and the individuals who need the Center so desperately.”
She wrote that her allegations against the operations director “destroyed trust between Rob and I, and I have been treated with dismissal and hostility ever since.”
Moolman disagreed that such dismissal and hostility ever happened.
“Absolutely, that situation did not take place as described,” he said.
Just before the second round of restructuring, Utah Pride Festival Director Hillary McDaniel sent an email to Utah Pride Center Board Chair Mona Stevens requesting to be put on the board’s agenda for the next meeting to discuss the items in Pitts’ email. Stevens declined to put McDaniel on the agenda.
McDaniel then sent an email complaint to Stratus.hr on the morning of June 10. Hours later, she was let go.
“To me, it points to retaliation,” McDaniel told The Salt Lake Tribune. “These were the people asking hard questions about financial transparency about who was let go and why.”
Moolman said the plan for the restructure, including whose positions would be eliminated, was made well before the complaints and the email to the board. “In fact,” he said, “it had been vetted by numerous community leaders and pro-bono lawyers.”
“If people think that such decisions can be made in a matter of hours, they haven’t been in a position to have to let people — especially people they consider friends — go,” Moolman said.
One of the biggest questions the former employees and volunteers have put forth is why the Center, after acknowledging they received a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Small Business Association, didn’t choose to keep the staff on the payroll.
“There were so many questions about the PPP loans,” Moolman said. “Every time we thought we understood how the program worked, we got a call that things had changed.”
Center leaders determined they would pay back the loan rather than incur debt.
“Surprisingly, upon thoroughly examining the terms of the PPP loan program, we found that the loan would have put the Center under undue fiscal strain with its requirements and payback schedule,” said UPC board treasurer Christine Decaria. “The Center, for the last several years, has been operating in the black, and [the board] determined to keep it that way and to not burden the Center with unproductive debt.”
In the end, Moolman said, the Center leaders believed that the former staff would do better utilizing the $600 unemployment boost than coming on for 10 weeks only to be let go at that point.
On July 20, Center leaders issued a statement and a video responding to the allegations.
“For more than 30 years, the Utah Pride Center has proudly been the voice of our community, creating lasting change and working with the public to ensure inclusion among all who live in and call Utah home,” the statement read. “Like so many organizations and small businesses, the swift and indiscriminatory spread of the Coronavirus affected many aspects of the day to day operations at the Center—pausing our in-person services accessed by thousands of community members, hamstringing our finances, and ultimately causing the cancellation of the annual Utah Pride Festival and Parade.”
“The Festival,” the statement read, “accounts for a substantial portion of the Center’s annual operating budget, and the need to cancel it for public safety had an immediate and direct burden to the Center’s finances.”
“As such, the Board of Directors and Executive Director made some difficult decisions to mitigate loss in order to continue the Center’s mission going forward and serving our community today, tomorrow, and in the future.”
“We knew these decisions were tough and would be felt for the unforeseeable future,” the statement continued. “What we did not anticipate was the undue ridicule placed on the Center by a small yet vocal group of individuals. We are here to dispute any wrongdoing and list our justification for these decisions.”
Moolman explained that the reason people were hired on to the Center staff was because they were passionate and dedicated to the goals of the Center.
“We understand these positions were held by people with faces and names who poured their hearts and souls into the Center’s mission and the LGBTQ+ community, and we are forever grateful for their work and accomplishments achieved on behalf of everyone in our community,” he wrote.
Staff salaries, however, were the largest and only expense where cuts could be made.
“With the rapidly evolving reality of our situation and uncertain economic and social future we are all facing, we know that our world and our Center would look different than it did just a few months ago,” Moolman wrote.
“The past several months have been difficult for the Utah Pride Center and our community,” said UPC board chair Mona Stevens. “Coming into 2020, the Center was on track to have another great year with expanded services and another successful Pride Festival.”
“But we have experienced a scenario that none of us could have imagined just a few months ago,” she continued.
With the help of the community, sponsors, and donors, Stevens said, “We are confident we can weather the storm.”
UPC board vice-chair Chris Jensen said the Center was on track to increase their reserve from three to six months of operating income.
“With the Festival and other events being cancelled, the financial impact was an immediate 70 percent cut in income,” he said. “Drastic and quick decisions were needed with creative minds evaluating every expense. The most heartbreaking and painful decisions that had to be made were to reduce the size of our staff.”
Moolman said that he spoke with leaders of CenterLink, the national coalition of LGBTQ community centers, who said that Centers across the country are in crisis, and many are imploding with the stress of managing decisions under the pandemic.
“The Utah Pride Center is being seen by Centers across the country as being one that is emerging through the transition as well as possible,” Moolman said. “We have set the financial groundwork to survive and succeed.”