Bishops' conference to freeze wages, budgets

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WASHINGTON -- The slowed economy has forced officials at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to freeze wages and department budgets for 2009.

Msgr. David Malloy, USCCB general secretary, made the announcement to staff Dec. 11.

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, USCCB director of media relations, said the step became necessary when investment income fell as the economic situation worsened throughout 2008.

She said conference officials decided to roll back individual department budgets to 2008 levels even though the bishops approved a 2.25 percent increase in allocations to conference programs at their annual fall meeting in November.

The wage freeze became necessary in large part to meet pension obligations, Sister Mary Ann told Catholic News Service Dec. 17.

"Usually the payment for retirement has been offset by income from our stock portfolio," she explained. "Well that income has dropped significantly as everybody's income has dropped significantly."

The conference has declined to make specific recommendations on how individual offices can adjust expenditures to cover normal increases. In the Department of Communications, restrictions on travel have been put in place, Sister Mary Ann said.

The USCCB finance staff is monitoring investments in an attempt to avoid any further funding reductions, Sister Mary Ann added.

One USCCB office expected to feel the pinch of a tighter budget is Migration and Refugee Services. The office is expecting a 12 percent increase in the number of refugees it will welcome in 2009, according to Mark Sloan, the office's associate director for processing operations.

The agency processed 19,600 refugees in 2008 and expects the number to rise to about 22,000 in 2009, Sloan said.

But MRS staff members said they have growing concerns about the possible layoffs of refugees already in the country, the shortage of jobs for newcomers and rising housing costs.

Many refugees land in low-paying, entry-level jobs at hotels, warehouses, meatpacking plants and small factories. With layoffs affecting most of those industries, the newcomers are among the first to take a hit, explained Richard Hogan, MRS associate director for diocesan development and support.

"With the economy going down everyone around the country is saying they're having a harder time finding jobs," he said.

"The cost of housing has gone up a lot all over the country. We're really becoming hard-pressed to find places to put the refugees," he added.

While the State Department funds each person who arrives in the U.S. for 90 days, the $425 per person resettlement allowance for housing, job assistance and transportation is hardly enough, said Gregory Scott, MRS associate director for grants and program administration. As the economy slumps, most local dioceses are finding it increasingly difficult to find adequate funds to cover the true cost of resettling the newcomers, he said.

Hogan said MRS is planning to meet with State Department officials in January to seek more support for its work.

"We don't want to reduce the numbers of refugees coming in, but at the same time we need to be a little practical about how we're going to help them," Hogan said.

At CNS, which is part of the USCCB communications department, Anthony Spence, director and editor in chief, said the news agency is working to minimize the impact of the budget freeze. Staff members belong to the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and are under contract to receive a 3.25 percent wage increase Jan. 1.

Spence said he has scheduled a meeting with guild representatives to seek "some accommodation that will acknowledge CNS' financial condition."

"We're meeting with the guild to have a conversation about both the health of the media industry and CNS' position in the media industry," Spence said. "Given new orders from USCCB, we'll have to have a discussion about the consequences to CNS' budget.

"We are struggling just like all Catholic media are struggling. The economic downturn has caused all of our clients to examine their news expenses very hard.

"We have not had a large loss of clients and clients haven't cut back on our services," he added. "In 2009 as clients look at their budgets we're hoping CNS is not one of their choices to live without."

Paul Reilly, local representative for the guild, said the union is willing to listen to any proposal from CNS management.

"We have a contract. Certainly if they want to have any changes in the contract, we can listen. We're under no obligation to bargain, but we will listen to any concerns, any problems they have," Reilly said.

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