STOCKBRIDGE — The Berkshire economy absorbed another shock Thursday when one of South County's largest employers announced that it will lay off 90 percent of its almost 500 employees next month.
Due to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health is planning to lay off 450 of the retreat center's 489 total employees June 17, CEO Barbara Vacarr said Thursday. Kripalu's employees were notified Wednesday of the staff reductions.The remaining 39 employees will receive salary cuts based on the amount of their yearly compensation, with the highest-paid staffers receiving the biggest pay reductions, Vacarr said. The remaining members of Kripalu's peer leadership team are receiving 40 percent pay cuts.
"We tried to do this equitably, based on salary," she said.
All of the laid-off employees will be eligible to apply for unemployment compensation, Vacarr said. Kripalu hopes to bring back as many employees as possible when it reopens in 2021, she said.
The layoffs and pay cuts were necessary to preserve and sustain Kripalu's campus, physical plant and mission because the center will remain closed for such a long period of time, Vacarr said.
"As we think about the road ahead and what it takes in fixed costs to operate the retreat center, we have no line in sight into opening Kripalu this year," she said. "Because of that line of sight now, we were faced with some very tough decisions about having to take a close look at our finances and how we manage between now and when we reopen.
"It's the last thing we would have chosen," she said.
She didn't provide a specific date or time period for reopening the center next year.
"All the models that we're modeling say the beginning of 2021," she said. "Our plan is to reopen in 2021 when it's safe to do so."
One of the concerns about reopening is that, unlike some of its competitors, Kripalu brings in large numbers of people for educational-type programming.
"So, we will only open when it's safe to bring people back into the retreat center," she said.
State Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, referred to the layoffs as "another body blow to the Berkshires."
"Tanglewood was a big shock," he said. "This is the next one. ... A lot of places are in trouble, but this is [difficult] for the 400-plus people who work there, several of whom I know. I'm stunned. I can't say I'm surprised, but I'm heartbroken nonetheless."
Kripalu had closed its on-site operations March 13 but recently resumed online programming, a practice that it intends to continue. After closing, Kripalu received a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and has used that money, and fundraising, to provide its employees with their full salaries and medical and dental benefits since on-site operations ceased.
"There was lot of sadness because this has been hard for everyone," Vacarr said of the employees.
"But, I have to say that the expressions of gratitude have been profound," she said, noting that the staff was helped for a "relatively long period of time during the shutdown."
"People are balancing their sadness with the loss of their community with a sense of gratitude and a sense of hope that Kripalu is coming back," she said.
Bill Stoll, of Pittsfield, who will mark his 26th year as a Kripalu employee on Memorial Day, said employees were "somber and resigned" about losing their jobs.
"I was a little shocked," said Stoll, who is a programmer in Kripalu's information technology department. "But, it wasn't too surprising. From what they've been telling us, the money was going to run out on June 17. I didn't see where they were getting more.
"It's going to be much harder for the people they left behind," he said.
Pignatelli said he hopes the state's rapid response team will be able to provide aid to the employees who are losing their jobs. The MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board normally provides these services to companies that experience major staff reductions.
He said the local employment picture has become so dire that his office had been flooded with phone calls about unemployment issues from constituents for the past four or five weeks.
"The state has to do a better job," he said.
Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-281-2755.