I’ve received a lot of messages recently from furloughed employees of Catholic institutions asking if they are eligible for Unemployment Compensation. This is a more complicated question than it should be, but if you are furloughed because of the pandemic the answer is yes.
My correspondents are confused because they have suddenly learned that their employer, as a religious institution, has elected NOT to pay unemployment insurance payroll taxes. Under normal circumstances, that would mean that laid-off workers were not eligible for unemployment benefits.
The CARES Act changed that, at least for workers who have lost their job due to covid-19. Although the media coverage focused on expansion of UI to cover gig workers and independent contractors, the language used covers employees of Church institutions. This much has been clearly noted by the Department of Labor and by the USCCB General Counsel. (It’s also the case that Catholic institutions with fewer than 500 employees can take advantage of the SBA small business loans on offer that will be forgiven if used to retain employees during the crisis.)
That said, the situation points to an injustice routinely suffered by employees of religious institutions, including Catholic ones: protection from economic catastrophe through a layoff. As the Bishops noted in their 1986 Pastoral Letter Economic Justice for All, “All the moral principles that govern the just operation of any economic endeavor apply to the Church and its agencies and institutions; indeed the Church should be exemplary .” Those working for the Church have typically foregone higher wages and benefits in the for-profit economy in order to pursue their calling. They should not also be asked to court financial disaster because their employer prefers to save a few dollars a week in unemployment insurance premiums. Unless they elect to use these funds to create a self-financed system of unemployment benefits for their employees, Church institutions should pay into UI like everyone else. Their employees deserve no less.