LA's Top Asian American Advocacy Group Cuts Its Staff — And Services Will Suffer

Staff at Asian Americans Advancing Justice march outside the Wilshire Boulevard headquarters to protest layoffs. (Josie Huang/KPCC)

Major layoffs at L.A.'s top Asian American civil rights organization will affect thousands who use the non-profit for everything from voting assistance to immigration services.

That's according to staffers at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles who said 18 union members were laid off Monday — about a fifth of the staff — in response to a reported $2 million budget shortfall.

"The organization purporting to be the leader and services for that community is no longer the leader," said Alison Vu, who spoke on behalf of those laid-off, herself among them. She learned Monday she had lost her job as spokeswoman for AAAJ-LA.

Also pink-slipped were a lawyer who specializes in labor rights, two employees who provide immigration assistance, and four outreach staff who go into schools in the San Gabriel Valley to work with immigrant youth.

The board of directors for the non-profit declined to give interviews Monday but in a statement said:

The decisions announced today were made after extensive input and analysis with staff and leadership of Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Los Angeles in order to position our organization to be stronger and more financially sustainable in the future. While difficult, actions taken were critical to allow us to continue the important work of advancing justice in AANHPI comunities, all communities of color, immigrants and other marginalized groups moving forward.

The layoffs coincide with labor negotiations between management and staff, who unionized more than a year ago. The board asserted in its statement that the job cuts have nothing to do with labor talks.

Alison Vu was laid off as AAAJ-LA's spokeswoman. (Josie Huang/KPCC)

No explanation was given by the board for the non-profit's financial woes.

Vu said that in meetings, management have admitted they failed to pay attention to the finances of the organizations for the last 10 or 15 years and had not understood the full cost of running programs.

Staff tried to help, Vu said, by offering to take unpaid days off from work and wage cuts or to contribute more to health insurance costs but none of those ideas went anywhere.

AAAJ-LA was founded 35 years ago by civil rights lawyer Stewart Kwoh. This year, Kwoh stepped down as executive director and Sylia Obagi took over on interim basis in May. (Full disclosure: Kwoh is an honorary life trustee for Southern California Public Radio, which operates LAist.)

The non-profit is not only known for providing community services, but also for speaking out for the Asian American community on policy issues such as affirmative action and immigrant rights.

The organization has advocated for people who could be affected by President Trump's pending "public charge" rule that would disqualify immigrants from green cards if they use certain publicly-funded services.

AAAJ-LA has also advocated on behalf of young unauthorized immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the administration has sought to end.

Employees of AAAJ-LA gather inside the non-profit's offices with union members from AFSCME District Council 36. (Josie Huang/KPCC)

Staffers say the job losses will hit non-English speaking clients particularly hard.

AAAJ-LA has worked to serve a diaspora with a vast array of languages by providing a multilingual intake hotline. But as part of the layoffs, management has let go of three hotline workers who answered the phones in Khmer, Tagalog and Vietnamese, Vu said.

"That means is if you call in Vietnamese, there's no one to answer the phone anymore to refer you to services, to direct you to a lawyer," Vu said.

A Hindi speaker who worked the phones left several weeks ago and has not been replaced, Vu said.

The remaining phone operators, she said, can speak Thai, Tagalog, Chinese and Korean.

Two citizenship teacher positions have also been cut.

Bilingual civics instructor Billy Yates holds classes for about 100 Mandarin speakers in Chinatown, Rosemead and Temple City.

"It's traumatic for my students because they no longer know where to go," Yates said. "The way we're turning our back on the community is unconscionable."

Billy Yates teaches civic courses to Mandarin speakers in Chinatown, Temple City and Rosemead. (Josie Huang/LAist)

Vu said a nineteenth staffer would have been laid off, but one individual voluntarily resigned to save a co-worker's job.

The layoffs come more than a year after employees decided to unionize and join the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36. AFSCME leaders marched in solidarity with AAAJ staff in and out of the non-profit's headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard during lunch.

The bargaining unit, to members' frustration, is still without a contract.

"To me, it's really hypocritical that an organization that employs labor rights lawyers would go on to say that no you can't advocate for your rights," Vu said.

Vu said some of those who led the unionizing effort have since left the organization, either of their own accord or because the environment had turned "hostile" toward them.

In the board's statement, it said that leaders "fully support the right of staff to organize and will continue to work in good faith with the collective bargaining unit as we have from the beginning. Any characterizations of our intentions otherwise are not true."

Vu said that staff wanted to unionize due to poor working conditions.

For example, she said, staff worked for days at a time without air conditioning in the summer of 2017 due to an aging HVAC system in the organization's Wilshire office. Vu said repairs have since been made but the HVAC system continues to be spotty.

She said that staff were also concerned that no evacuation plan had been in place when a fire broke out in a satellite office in Rosemead in 2016, and workers there endured smoke inhalation.

That office was closed this summer as part of budget cuts, Vu said.

UPDATES:

Oct. 9, 5 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify that Stewart Kwoh is an honorary life trustee and not a voting member of the board of trustees for Southern California Public Radio.

This article was originally published at Oct. 8 3:15 p.m.