Friday, June 8, 2007

Bloodbath at the Chron

By Robert Gammon
Fri, Jun 8, 2007 at 4:55 PM

It's been a brutal day at the San Francisco Chronicle, as managers walked from desk to desk, handpicking reporters and photographers to be laid off. "It's definitely a bloodbath," said one insider. The Chron plans to lay off up to sixty union-represented newsroom employees in the next week. For the past week, the paper offered buyouts in an effort to cut eighty jobs, but only about twenty employees took the offer, one insider said. See the buyout offer after the jump.

Among the list of managers who were canned was the Chron's Washington D.C. bureau chief, Marc Sandalow. He was well-known and respected reporter who provided straightforward, easy to read analysis of Washington news events. Sandalow also was a frequent guest analyst on KCBS radio. "That one had us scratching our heads - Sandalow was one of the faces of the newspaper," said one Chron insider.

Among the reporters who reportedly took the buyout were science writer Keay Davidson and environmental reporter Glen Martin. Under the buyout, employees were offered two weeks of pay for every year of service, with a maximum payout of no more than one year's pay. Here is a Q&A from the newspaper guild:

6/6/07 Guild Q&A on Chronicle incentive termination.

What's the buyout offer?

Two weeks pay per year of service for eligible employees, up to one year's pay, along with health care paid for up to one year. Pay is calculated based on final straight pay rate. Employees will be told individually if he or she is eligible.

Why did the Guild agree to these buyout terms?

The company announced a goal of reducing 100 newsroom jobs, including about 80 held by Guild members. We hope to avoid layoffs in the newsroom with these voluntary buyouts after we became convinced there was no other alternative. We agreed to the buyout terms in an attempt to reduce or perhaps eliminate the need for layoffs in the newsroom. Our discussions with management resulted in improvements in the original buyout, but we are convinced no better terms are available. The company has said it will not negotiate individual enhancements.

Will these buyouts avoid the need for layoffs?

That may not become clear until after the buyout phase is complete, which we expect may take about a month for all departments.

Are these job cuts going to solve the Chronicle's business problems?

Clearly not. Our members in the newsroom generate the content readers and advertisers want, and reducing newsroom jobs inevitably hurts the editorial product. We see no point in arguing against the company's decision to cut jobs -- clearly, the management has the right to reduce the force. But these short-term cost reductions should not be confused with a long-term business plan that is capable of restoring profitability.

Would it harm my career if I approach management and ask what I would be offered under a buyout package but then later decide not to take it?

Any employee is free anytime to inquire about terms if they are considering retirement or resignation. Obviously, this would be a pointless question for anyone with no desire to leave the Chronicle. It might also send an inaccurate message about one's intentions. But there should be no penalty for asking questions, and management can't take any punitive measures without due cause.

After the buyouts are done, assuming there aren't enough, how will seniority figure into any layoffs?

Seniority is based on original hire date, then by department and classification. Under the contract, the newsroom is divided into the following departments for purposes of a layoff: sports, features, business, photography and library. Copy editors and certain news desk positions are grouped together. The remaining editorial employees are grouped as one department. Within those departments, each classification (i.e., job title as listed in the contract) are grouped separately (columnists, reporters, photographers, etc.) In the event of a layoff, the Guild must be notified one week in advance of the number, classifications and departments of jobs affected, and a seniority list must be provided. Within a week of this notice, any employee in the classification and department affected may retire, and this could reduce the number of employees designated for layoff. The employer may designate up to 25% of employees in any one classification or department as being of "major importance", thereby saving a person with low seniority from being laid off. This designation cannot be made for arbitrary or capricious reasons.

What can the management do to me if I refuse a buyout but have enough seniority to avoid layoff, and if you turn down the offer, will your assignment change?

The employer can change schedules or assignments for business reasons, and we expect will try to minimize the disruptions that may come if sections or beats are eliminated in the smaller newsroom. No transfers or job changes can be made for punitive reasons. It's also important to keep in mind that seniority rank, and hence risk of being laid off, may change after the buyouts and any reassignments.

When will the process begin for Guild members, and how will this be done?

Meetings with individual employees will probably start at the end of this week. The employee will be called to a meeting in Human Resources, presented with a buyout offer, informed that it is voluntary, but encouraged to seriously consider it. The employee will have a week to decide whether to submit a resignation and take the money. The employee will have another week to rescind the resignation. There would be an opportunity to agree upon a termination date. Anyone signing up for this offer would, under a law that protects people from making rash decisions, have an additional 45 days to sign the separation agreement and general release.

Can an employee request Guild representation?

Yes, and we encourage individuals to do so. Guild representatives will be available and meetings may be postponed within reason to accommodate schedules.

When you are tapped on the shoulder, how will your last day of employment be determined?

The termination date will be mutually agreed upon, but must be within a reasonable time period.

If you are offered a buyout and are close to your anniversary date, how will that work in terms of years of service?

Years of service will be pro-rated, and if it is necessary to remain on the payroll longer in order reach a significant date for pension purposes, this can be worked out.

How will buyouts for part-timers be calculated?

Part-timers will be given full credit for years of service, starting with their date of hire. They would be paid their full (37.5 hours) weekly salary multiplied by the appropriate number of weeks.

Will those who either accept a buyout or are laid off be eligible for unemployment benefits, even if their pension begins?

Yes, as long as the requirements of the EDD are met.

How will my medical coverage be retained if I choose to accept the buyout?

COBRA, the federal program that guarantees your rights to continue medical insurance after termination, allows an employee to extend current medical coverage for up to 18 months. If you accept a buyout, the company makes COBRA contributions to the Guild H&W plan on your behalf to retain coverage commensurate with your buyout offer.

How does this affect the two weeks per year of service under the previous pension plan?

This benefit is totally separate from the buyout offers being made. Employees who were vested in the pension plan as of January 1, 2006 (meaning you had worked at the paper since at least January 1, 2001) are entitled to two weeks pay for every year of service. This lump sum benefit is part of the pension and is paid out to employees upon termination or retirement. Again, this is totally separate from this buyout offer.

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