Colonial Williamsburg quietly lays off dozens of employees in reorganization effort

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(Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)
The layoffs come during a yearly limited programming period for the month of January. (Courtesy Colonial Williamsburg)

Colonial Williamsburg, the second-largest employer in the city, laid off several dozen employees this week in a move to right its “financial course.”

“Like historic sites around the nation,” said Joseph Straw, public relations manager for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “Colonial Williamsburg museum and hospitality operations have experienced dramatically declined visitation in recent decades, placing the foundation on an unsustainable financial course.”

“In order for Colonial Williamsburg to survive as an indispensable institution unique in the world requires significant and often difficult organizational changes,” Straw added. 

The layoffs come during a yearly limited programming period for the month of January, a time intended to retrain staff, and upgrade the Foundation’s website and admissions system. A similar round of layoffs occurred during the same period last year. 

Last January, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation President Mitchell Reiss announced a workforce reorganization, which resulted in the elimination of about 60 of the foundation’s approximately 2,560 employees, or about 2.3 percent of its workforce. The cuts were made primarily in the Productions, Publications and Learning Ventures Division and the Division of Research and Historical Interpretation.

This year, layoffs also primarily occurred within the interpretation and communications departments; and affected roughly 40 employees, according to documents obtained by WYDaily.

According to a written notice of employee termination dated Jan. 9, the layoffs applied to “employees who work in CWF’s various locations in Education, Research and Historic Interpretation; Strategic Communications divisions (the ‘decisional unit’).”

Unlike last year, this year’s layoffs were carried out without a formal announcement from Foundation leadership.

“I got a meeting invite late Tuesday and there were no details about what the meeting could be about,” said a recently-terminated employee. “I was laid off Wednesday.”

The former employee’s name has been withheld due a clause in Colonial Williamsburg’s severance package that prohibits former employees from speaking about Foundation management. WYDaily spoke with multiple recently-terminated employees for this story, none of whom wished to be quoted directly for fear of losing severance pay. 

According to Virginia’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), employers with 100 or more full-time workers, who lay off 50 or more full-time workers, must send advance notice, in writing, to each employee at the employee’s last known address. The employer must also alert the local government’s chief elected official and the Virginia State Dislocated Worker Unit.

Lee Ann Hartmann, communications specialist for City of Williamsburg, said in an email that no city officials, including the City Attorney and City Manager, were formally notified about the layoffs. 

According to a source at Colonial Williamsburg, “fewer than 40 positions were impacted in this week’s reorganization.” The termination of less than 40 full-time employees would not make Colonial Williamsburg in violation of WARN, but the termination of a larger percentage of its workforce without notice could constitute a violation. 

As for whether future layoffs are on the horizon, a source within the Foundation said it’s a possibility. 

“No organization can rule out future changes,” the source said. “However, foundation leadership is sensitive to the impacts of events such as this week’s and made a deliberate effort to focus changes within this reorganization.”

Andrew Harris and Steve Roberts, Jr. contributed reporting. Berard may be reached at adrienne@wydaily.com.