[Update: July 14, 2023 at 1:30 p.m. CST — The Trevor Project has announced layoffs affecting 12% of their staff.
In response to the layoffs announced by the Trevor Project on July 6th, Friends of Trevor United wrote in a statement to In These Times that “The Trevor Project’s decision to lay off 12% of its staff while our union representatives were in an active bargaining session shows that Trevor leadership has no interest in following through on its goals of uplifting and supporting the LGBTQ+ folks, who make up a majority of the organization’s workforce. These layoffs come just months after Trevor workers won union recognition in April of this year. Management has falsely claimed that early notice was provided about the layoffs. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that these layoffs included 45 bargaining unit employees, 10 of which were prominent union advocates with leadership roles in the union.” The union says they were given less than a week’s notice of the names of staffers being laid off and that Trevor management has yet “to adequately respond as to how those individuals were selected.”
In response to these claims, sent by email to In These Times, a spokesperson at the Trevor Project asserted that no employee was laid off because they supported the union. “The necessity of a reduction in force is to protect the sustainability of our organization, and it would have been necessary regardless of whether or not our staff had recently unionized. The layoffs impacted both union and non-union employees, and union employees were not disproportionately impacted. Following the reduction in workforce, there will still be a strong union, with more than 350 employees in the bargaining unit.”
The spokesperson asserted that they communicated with the union about the proposed layoffs in May and provided specifics on teams affected, timing, and separation packages in mid-June, and that “claims about Trevor pressuring or rushing this process are untrue.”]
A majority of workers at The Trevor Project, a widely-praised nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide among LGBTQ youth, decided to come together this spring and unionize as Friends of Trevor United. About a month later, they celebrated when management at the nonprofit agreed to voluntarily recognize their union.
The Trevor Project has grown exponentially over the past few years, leading to what one union organizer describes as difficult workloads for crisis counselors dealing with increasing numbers of distress calls. Amy Solar-Greco, an organizer with Communications Workers of America — the union representing Friends of Trevor United — says Trevor’s rapid growth was “unsustainable and burdensome” for employees who are tasked with “performing intense, highly stressful and lifesaving work.”
The unionized workers include crisis counselors, policy advocates and curriculum developers, among others. Several of them interviewed for this article say that unionizing will not only help them support each other in the workplace but also better support the LGBTQ youth they serve.
“In an airplane, you have to put the mask on yourself before you help someone else,” says Dennis Barrett, an advocacy manager at The Trevor Project. “We want to make sure that we’re taken care of so that we can be 100% for the young people that we serve every day.”
“The Trevor Project’s staff are the heartbeat of this organization, and without their contributions we could not continue to operate our lifesaving programs and services for LGBTQ young people,” Peggy Rajski, founder and interim CEO of The Trevor Project, said in a news release. “With a staff as passionate and dedicated to The Trevor Project’s mission as ours, working together on a contract will help ensure that our organization can continue to support LGBTQ young people for generations to come.”
The Trevor Project, which was founded in 1998 and won the Classy Award for Social Innovation in 2021, offers 24-7 crisis support across the United States and Mexico through a free hotline and messaging service. If a suicidal LGBTQ teenager places a call to The Trevor Project at 2 a.m., for example, crisis staff — who receive 40 hours of intensive training on counseling and protocol — are there to respond with free and confidential support.
According to Solar-Greco, however, the demands on Trevor’s crisis counselors became increasingly untenable in recent years. Solar-Greco says The Trevor Project has undergone “quick, large-scale growth,” expanding from a staff of 50 to a workforce of some 500 over the past few years. This rapid expansion has been trying on some staffers.
According to reporting from Teen Vogue, The Trevor Project was averaging about 200 inbound distress calls and texts per day in 2017. By last year, that number had skyrocketed to more than 2,000. CEO Amit Paley was removed from his position in early November, reportedly due at least partly to complaints about the burden this growth placed on existing employees.
Further protecting the crisis workers — some of whom have also been subject to homophobic and transphobic harassment from far-right groups — is one of the goals of the fledgling union, whose members highlighted the importance of more supportive working conditions amid the recent slew of homophobic and transphobic bills being debated in legislatures across the country.
“I see the emotional toll that it can take doing a job where you’re constantly around suicidality or you’re constantly thinking about all of the bills that are being passed in the United States,” says Victoria “VT” Tonikian, the goal-setting manager at The Trevor Project. “This union effort — it’s really personal. We all came here because this is the work that we want to do.”
According to the Movement Advancement Project, this year’s legislative session has already heard 650 bills that target LGBTQ rights at the state level. A poll conducted by The Trevor Project reports that 71% of LGBTQ youth say their mental health has been negatively impacted by state laws that restrict their community’s rights. LGBTQ youth — who are already more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers — have seen increased rates of suicidal thoughts over the past three years. In 2022, nearly one in five transgender or nonbinary youth attempted suicide, and nearly half of LGBTQ youth seriously considered it.
“We’re really committed to the LGBTQ young people that we’re serving and we’re really committed to one another,” says Kim Corea, the international associate curriculum developer at The Trevor Project. “Part of that commitment lies within the call for more equitable and more sustainable working conditions, so that we can stay here and continue to support the young people that we serve.”
In addition to sustainable workloads for crisis counselors, the union is hoping to win better pay and a more equitable workplace, including “zero tolerance racism and discrimination policies, training, and hiring practices,” according to the union’s vision statement. Trevor staff are also hoping that their union will help continue to guarantee health benefits like gender-affirming surgeries, which can often take months or years to complete. (The Trevor Project currently offers gender-affirming surgeries in its healthcare plan.) The nonprofit also pays employee premiums for medical, dental, vision and basic life insurance.
Emma Turzillo, a training operations associate at The Trevor Project, hopes that the union can secure reliable insurance benefits. “Because we don’t have a union contract, our health insurance conditions could change at any time,” Turzillo told In These Times before the union was voluntarily recognized.
Management at The Trevor Project did not respond to further requests for comment about any of the claims in this article or about their current policies against workplace discrimination and their employee health insurance.
For Trevor staff, their union is the best way to support LGBTQ youth. “We all come to this work with so much passion for the mission to end suicide among LGBTQ young people,” says Turzillo. “We want to have the resources and the support to do our jobs well.”
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Sara Van Horn is a writer from Brooklyn and a former editorial intern at In These Times. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, Bookforum, and elsewhere.