Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Funding cuts have forced the Women's Opportunity Center to run with only three staff members.

October 1, 2020

State Budget Cuts Force Women’s Opportunity Center to Lay Off 7 Staff Members

Print More

The Women’s Opportunity Center has not received full funding from New York State since March, forcing the organization to lay off seven employees at a time when the pandemic has strained demand for career training services.   

Now, only three staff members are running the center, which serves a vast community of mostly women clients seeking personal financial stability. Homeless, recently incarcerated and newly independent women often rely on the center’s free career training programs.

One staff member serves each of the center’s Ithaca and Syracuse locations, in addition to its associated Mary Durham Boutique. The center has lost five permanent and two part-time employees, including facilitators and media managers.

While the center hopes to rehire its full staff eventually, Executive Director Ryan Harriott said that will be impossible until it secures at least its previous level of government funding.

New York’s Department of Labor primarily supports the center through its Displaced Homemaker Program, which pays non-profit organizations to provide workforce development services to women across the state.

DHP contracts normally run from Aug. 1 to July 31, but this year’s renewal process has not yet begun, with no indication of a revised timeline.

This month, the center finally received the check that the government was supposed to send in May, according to Harriott. However, the organization hasn’t heard anything about the other missed payments, which are supposed to be sent monthly.

After the center issued a press release, Tompkins County said that the county will catch up with nonprofit funding soon. But the county committed to no official timeline to the center, which will now be forced to operate on severely limited resources for the foreseeable future.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) announced in the spring that all nonprofits contracted by the state would see a 21 percent budget cut. However, Harriott said, the center never received formal confirmation about the cut.

The DHP supports 50 percent of the center’s funding, with the rest supplemented by United Way, the Triad Foundation and individual donors. But these sources aren’t as reliable.

“In August, we didn’t get anyone to pay us anything,” Barnett said, “which was a bit painful.”

This is not the first time the program has been the subject of major budget cuts, according to Susan Barnett, the center’s board chair. In 2013, Albany cut the program completely, forcing many reliant nonprofits to close before funding was ultimately restored. Now, only a handful of DHP-funded organizations remain in New York State, Barnett said.

The most recent budget cuts come at a particularly troublesome time: According to Harriott, demand for the center’s services has significantly increased in recent months amid widespread unemployment and continued economic distress.

“As more people need to figure out a way to make a living, it’s been more impossible for people to do so,” Barnett said.

The center provides training for life, career and computer skills, services that are now largely offered online. It has also allowed some individual in-person consultations.

For the women who rely on the opportunity center, the online model introduces challenges, including lack of computer and internet access. However, moving services virtually has made them more accessible in other ways, as women without access to transportation or childcare can now take part in the center’s career training, Harriott said.

The center also runs the Mary Durham Boutique, a second hand clothing store whose profits help fund the center. All projects continue in modified form, despite the significantly reduced staff, with interns and volunteers assisting. However, Harriott plans to focus on re-hiring before incorporating the volunteers into a permanent model.

Barnett emphasized that the center made its temporary cuts to conserve resources while staying open for as long as possible with its skeleton staff.

“We never want to turn anyone away,” Barnett said. After nearly 40 years of service, the center doesn’t plan to close any time soon.

“We’re here to stay,” Harriott said.