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NIA Board Conference Call with Terri Watson on NOLS' Response to Covid-19

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 10:54 PM | Dave Durant (Administrator)

NIA Board Members Present: Clemencia Caporale, Drew Seitz, Fabio Oliveira, Molly Herber, Marissa Bieger, Dave Durant


NOLS Administrators Present: Terri Watson


Note: The points we presented to Terri largely revolved around the six next steps given at the bottom of our NOLS' Covid-19 Response Platform Plank.  I’m going to recount just Terri’s half of the conversation here.  I’ve grouped some comments by topic, rather than adhere strictly to the order in which they were made.


Enrollment Update


Wilderness Medicine courses after April 23rd are actively enrolling.  “People want to take our courses,” but many sponsors can’t support existing courses due to local restrictions.  e.g. Travel restrictions, advisories against gathering in large groups, Universities and other organizations shutting down.


Summer expeditions are still seeing enrollments, however we’re seeing a trend where people drop when their deposit is due.  We’re pushing back the due dates of these payments in order to keep people on courses.


We are hemorrhaging Spring students.  Applications for Summer and Fall expedition courses "dropped off a cliff" on Friday.  


Threat to NOLS


NOLS has $14,000,000 cash on hand.  We’ve already spent several million dollars paying out cancelled contracts.  If we were to have no students through summer, then we’d run through this amount and be $3,000,000 in the hole.


“If we’re closed through Summer, the school is in Jeopardy.”


Fabio gave examples of other organizations (e.g. OB South Africa, OB Brazil) where employees worked through crises with no pay or half pay.  Dave stated that this would be a hard ask with NOLS sitting on such a large endowment.  Terri explained that the vast majority of the endowment is donor restricted, meaning that it can’t be used to pay out contracts, barring a change in IRS laws.  A small portion of the endowment is board restricted, and therefore more flexible.  Dave pointed out that this information about the endowment is likely not generally well understood by employees, and an effort to explain this by admin could help cultivate employee goodwill. 


Instructor Courses


The two cancelled ICs won’t be rescheduled.  The fate of the remaining ICs is under discussion.  NOLS understands that running ICs this year will flood the market with instructors, on the other hand they want to avoid a shortage of instructors in future years.  “If we lose all the ICs, do we take a different approach entirely to training field instructors?”


NOLS Admin Decision Making Schedule 


Through 3/18, admin has been focused on unwinding the logistics of what’s happened so far.  e.g. brining courses out of the field.

Most students want NOLS to keep their tuition in order to transfer it to a future course.

On 3/19, admin will focus on “what are the ways we model Summer?”

On 3/20, admin will focus on “what are the ways we model the year?”

Week of 3/23 admin will focus on what decisions (e.g. extensions of cancellations) do we need to make by what dates.  The longer there is uncertainty around where the peak of this impact is, the more conservative we will need to be. 


Melissa Gray is leading a group coming up with guidance about when to restart courses.  One key indicator for them is CDC guidance.  Currently the CDC is advising against groups of 10 or more.  We won’t run classroom courses while this guidance is in place.  [NIA idea: are we exploring the idea of running single instructor courses with an 8:1 ratio?  Is there a price point at which these could be a feasible way to keep some income trickling in and keep at least senior instructors working?]


SEVIS, the agency that administers the J1 visa program, requested that NOLS suspend our J1 visa program for a minimum of 60 days. NOLS has agreed to that suspension as part of this global effort   As a point of reference, even the Department of Defense has suspended official travel very broadly for a month.


Right now we’re looking about a month down the road.  We need to get to a place where we’re looking further.  Terri: “I’m going to be surprised if the blackout date doesn’t go further.”


Pay & Unemployment Benefits


Expeditions is considering paying out contracts cancelled within 30 days of the start of the course, starting this summer.  (This is already Wilderness Medicine’s policy.)


Terri relayed some info from Terry Marcus re: Unemployment Benefits.  The implication was that NOLS Instructors without future contracts are eligible.  It will vary by state, but if you worked for NOLS during that state's "lookback" period to determine eligibility and qualified wages, you qualify. If you worked for multiple employers, all those wage would be considered. Benefits vary by the state in which the claim is made.  The Unemployment Agency usually (depends on states, this describes Wyoming) looks at your income for the last 18 months, and then grants you a percentage based on some number or average of the highest Quarter. Again, really important to note that this all varies by the state in which you file. Benefits are generally only available for 26 weeks, although this has been extended during past crises.  Average maximum benefits (across the 50 states) are approximately $425 per week.  Many NOLS employees won’t qualify for this amount.  


NOLS pays all unemployment claims directly.  If everyone who is eligible files for unemployment, this could potentially cost NOLS as much as 2-3 million dollars.  NOLS employees need not fear retaliation for seeking Unemployment.  Terri: “There are not going to be any negative consequences for anyone whole files for unemployment.”  


The very significant increases in compensation (instructor and in-town) that Terri sought at the last Board of Trustees Meeting (and that the NIA supports) are "dead in the water” given the current crisis.  Dave validated that Terri went to bat for very significant compensation increases, and that this effort has been foiled due to no fault of anyone involved.  Terri pointed out that the NOLS Board had been largely in support of this, prior to the wider outbreak of Covid-19.  Terri, the ET, and the NOLS Board of Directors remain cognizant of the need to address this as an organization, but at this point that is very unlikely to take place in the next budget.


Terri pointed out that if NOLS does have to go into “hibernation,” it might look different when it comes out of hibernation.  In other words, NOLS could use a period without students to envision the course volume and compensation structure that it would like to emerge with on the other side.

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