Five staff members at the LGBTQIA non-profit organization Outfest have been laid off two days after employees informed management of their intention to unionize, IndieWire has learned.
Outfest staffers, which included several officer members within the newly formed Queer Filmmakers United (QFU), were informed of their termination on Thursday that their last day would be Friday, September 29.
Those laid off are Martine McDonald, Director of Artist Development and the only Black employee at Outfest, Senior Programming Coordinator Gabi Grossman, the only trans woman employee at Outfest, Development Coordinator Alex Gootter, Marketing Manager Hansen Bursic, and Senior Programmer Daniel Crooke.
An email termination letter obtained by IndieWire says one of the employees was let go due to a “lack of funding,” and the QFU says it was told by Outfest the reason was due to the lack of available funds caused by the effects of “industry strikes.”
“I am heartbroken over the state of this organization which we have labored with love to build up,” said an unnamed QFU organizer said in a statement. “We find it disheartening that, in a time of change and potential growth, the immediate course of action has been one of contraction rather than collaboration.”
On Tuesday, the QFU informed the Outfest board of directors of its intention to unionize and gave the board a 24-hour window to voluntarily recognize the union. According to an email exchange obtained by IndieWire, the board’s leadership said in response that it initially needed 10 days to respond in accordance with the board’s bylaws, but that it had set a special meeting.
On Wednesday, Sept. 28, the QFU was surprised to learn that Damien Navarro, executive director at Outfest, had announced an “unanticipated extended leave of absence” for a minimum of 45 days. While Navarro’s leave of absence had tentatively been announced, a rep for QFU says the announcement immediately following the union’s demand for voluntary recognition came as a surprise.
In a statement to IndieWire, the Outfest board confirmed that Zackery Alexzander Stephens was appointed Acting Executive Director, with Stephens stepping away from their role on the board in order to assist in the transition during Navarro’s exit. The board also in the statement confirmed the layoffs as a result of a pre-planned reduction of workforce and says it has been “severely impacted by the financial climate” of the entertainment media landscape. It denied that the layoffs were a result of the staff’s call for a union.
“The Board has initiated measures to support organizational solvency and help realign the organization,” the board said in a statement. “We are working to rebuild a higher-quality organization and workplace. Leadership is in the process of scaling the organization sustainably in order to ensure that it is able to carry out its mission for the next generation of filmmakers.”
The board continued: “It is with great sadness that we have to make layoffs, but these are in no way connected to the staff’s desire to unionize. Staff was notified that the organization had planned for a reduction of the workforce prior to any communication of unionizing. Outfest is decidedly pro-union. The work our organization accomplishes wouldn’t be possible without Hollywood unions. As a nonprofit Board and organization, we believe in empowering LGBTQIA+ storytellers which includes our Outfest staff. Outfest Leadership does not have the authority to do what Local 9003 demands – voluntarily recognize – without a vote of our Board. It is the Board’s legal responsibility to adhere to proper governance which requires Board meetings to be scheduled (whether via phone or virtually) to allow for quorum. As this is a matter of urgency, a special meeting of the Board is being scheduled. As an organization, Outfest is dedicated to facilitating a culture of respect, trust, and transparency for both staff and our community. The organization’s core mission is to champion queer storytellers and create opportunity, which is reflected in their programming and events.”
A rep for the board had no additional comment on Navarro’s leave of absence.
Twelve employees eligible for unionizing on Tuesday demanded a better work-life balance; regulations that protect from “scope creep,” in which other job responsibilities seep into their own; seasonal staff to help run the many additional events thrown each year; higher wages to meet the cost of living in Los Angeles; and more say in budget decisions and organizational vision.
The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, which launched in 1982, hosts its flagship Outfest festival in Los Angeles but also the Outfest Fusion festival in Los Angeles dedicated to queer BIPOC storytellers. The group also has an activation at Sundance and hosts an awards gala, the annual Legacy Awards, which this year are scheduled for October 22. Outfest also hosts other year-round member screenings, artist development programs, and more.