By Rebecca Ellis

Oregon Public Broadcasting

High personnel costs and no revenue from major courtroom victories have left Disability Rights Oregon with a budget deficit, according to the organization’s most recent tax filing.

For four decades, the nonprofit has provided powerful legal advocacy, winning lawsuits that have led to improved infrastructure, wages and benefits for disabled Oregonians.

But the advocacy is costing the organization. Between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2018, the nonprofit brought in $1.9 million, close to what it spent on employee salaries and benefits. The organization ended the fiscal year with a $453,000 deficit.

The nonprofit’s tax form for 2018 is not available, but it’s unlikely the numbers have changed substantially. The group depends on major cash infusions awarded by the court after attorneys win a significant lawsuit, and it has not received such a boon since the filing. Meanwhile, the number of employees has remained at 27.

That is, until this month, when eight employees at Disability Rights Oregon received layoff notices.

With nearly a third of its staff scheduled to leave by the end of November, the departures raise questions about how the group’s statewide advocacy work will be affected and whether the cuts will be enough to stabilize its finances.

These questions went unanswered by board President Jan Campbell, who did not respond to repeated interview requests by OPB. In a statement, Campbell said that layoffs were “necessary to continue Disability Rights Oregon’s strong financial standing, which will allow us to protect and promote the rights of 950,000 Oregonians with disabilities for many more years.”

The layoffs occurred at the same time as a newly-formed union at Disability Rights Oregon was negotiating its contracts with management, leading members to suspect the layoffs were a form of retaliation. Seven of the eight employees who were laid off were part of the union. Ten union members remain.

But, according to the union, management has held that the staff cuts were the results of a “fiscal emergency.”

“They said, ‘We’re having a financial crisis; we need to make those layoffs now,’” recalled Matthew Denney, a staff attorney at the organization that has acted as the union’s bargaining team leader. Denney was one of the staff members laid off Oct. 21.

Mikayla Robinson, a regional organizer with the National Organization of Legal Service Workers who has been assisting with contract negotiations, said Disability Rights Oregon management told the union the organization needed to find a way to save roughly $400,000.

Robinson said the union urged the nonprofit to reduce the number of layoffs and tackle its financial troubles instead through a hiring freeze or mandatory furloughs. The 19 employees left at DRO include seven attorneys, two advocates, and five social security benefit experts.

“The proposed reorganization disproportionately affects advocacy services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including the areas of employment, special education, protection from financial abuse, Medicaid-funded supports, and voting rights,” read a statement from the union. “The organization is proposing major restructuring without a strategic plan.”

The layoffs aren’t the only belt-tightening measure made in recent months. Since Jake Cornett replaced longtime Disability Rights Oregon leader Bob Joondeph this year, Robinson said the organization has cut back on library database subscriptions, supplies and transportation expenses.

Joondeph, who was at the helm of the organization for three decades, said the layoffs were not on the table when he left in March. Shortfalls in revenue were not unusual for a legal advocacy nonprofit like Disability Rights Oregon, he said, which depends largely on the attorney fees awarded by the court.

“We’re kind of like a snake. Every so often, we come across a small rodent, and we earn some attorney fees,” Joondeph said. “And it took us a while to digest it, and we’d spend that money over a period of time in the hopes you’d find another rodent, so there’s always a sense of uncertainty.”