Friday, July 29, 2011

Think of it as emancipation

Several of my former colleagues at The Indianapolis Star were laid off/fired a few weeks ago in Gannett’s latest effort to squeeze a few more pennies out of what was once a great newspaper.

The Gannett bean counters eliminated the copy desk with an eye to outsourcing copy editing. I have no idea how that is supposed to work, but it has the effect of lobotomizing what remained of The Star’s institutional memory. You can look for more embarrassing corrections, like, “There are 92 counties in Indiana. The Star regrets the error.”

Judy Wolf is one of the best copy editors I ever worked with. She was let go. She recently posted this on her Facebook wall after she and others suffered the consequences of an incompetent HR director at The Star:


This is a note I've sent to the HR director at The Star (Olivia) and the union/Guild president there (Bobby). Those of us laid off just found out that almost every piece of information that HR gave us about health insurance was absolutely wrong. Olivia acknowledged she'd given out bad info and said the company would try to make things right. The Guild asked all of us to send her a note with our personal tale of woe and copy it to the Guild. I almost posted this on the FB page I created -- Jobs for (ex-) Journalists -- to share, but there are job postings there, and I don't want to push those down on the page.

Olivia (and Bobby):

This is to document -- and add to -- the 2 voice mails I left for Olivia last night (Monday, 7/25). I didn't record the times, unfortunately. I've not yet received a response.

Bobby asked us to call you and tell you our tale of woe. To be brief, this is just some of what the wrong information you gave out has caused:

* Some people have bought insurance policies they didn't need to. So, your error made them spend time researching policies when they could have, oh, I don't know, been researching jobs. And your mistake made them spend money at a time when they would be trying their best to shepherd their funds.

* Many people (everyone I've talked to, at the least) spent the last 10 days of June, furiously spending down their flexible spending accounts because they were going to disappear come July 1. I went through close to $1,200, I believe. I rescheduled numerous appointments, squeezing as many in as possible (until I thought I was out of FSA money); bought stuff I didn't actually need right now (a new pair of glasses is just one example) but purchased because if I didn't, the money would be wholly lost; refilled prescriptions just weeks after the last refill, meaning my FSA paid the full amount for them; etc.

Now, of course, we find out that none of that was necessary. So, in addition to making me spend down what I didn't have to, your failure at the basics of your job meant I wasn't able to start looking for jobs for the 10 days immediately after the layoffs. Gee, Olivia, I'm at a loss for words to thank you for delaying my job hunt that long. Why, I'm sure there were NO jobs in town that I might have applied for. Not a one. And I spent all that energy that I could have applied to hunting for a job for what turned out to be a futile effort. Wow. You really know how to make an impression when you're fairly new to a job, don't you?

* Everyone I know of has been horridly worried about what the costs of COBRA will be, how they're going to afford it, why they haven't gotten the COBRA packet, will they have enough time to look at the options and get the reply back before the 2 months is up, etc. And I'll reiterate my surprise from the exit interview when Carolyn and I asked for info on COBRA and you said you didn't have it, that it'd come from Gannett benefits. Think about it, Olivia. You've just been laid off (unexpectedly, I can assure you). Would you want HR (pardon me -- the HR director, for God's sake) to give you as much good information as possible? Why, I'm guessing you'd answer yes. Wouldn't that be helpful? Wouldn't that give you some feeling of knowing where your life was going? Why, yes, I do believe so. Your response to us was cavalier.

I know you've accepted responsibility, Olivia. I won't say I appreciate it, because that's the absolute minimum you should have done. And if you didn't, I know I had notes from my exit w/Carolyn that would've stood up in arbitration. But I can think of absolutely no reason this was screwed up like it was. I know you haven't been in contract talks here, but surely as part of getting familiar with the place, you discovered that we have a union and a contract covering the newsroom, library and building services.

And all it took me -- a lowly former employee, not an HR director at one of Gannett's biggest papers -- was a call to Gannett benefits yesterday (Monday), and a chat with Amit, to find out that those of us covered by the contract (those w/severance, which is all of those covered) were continuing on the health insurance. Why didn't you do that? Do you have no appreciation for what being laid-off (or fired) means? Seriously. Do you just not get it? Don't you understand that the information you're providing is life-altering? Do you care about the humans? Do you even like the "Hs" in HR?

If I'd made this many mistakes on something big (like a project), I'd be so humiliated, I might not come back to work.

We're in the information business. I know you're in HR, but you're in HR for a newspaper. It seems that it never occurred to you to check the information you were giving out. How does that work, Olivia? How do you talk to people whose lives have just been turned upside down and not make absolutely sure that what you're telling them is correct? How?

I doubt you've ever been laid off or fired, and maybe that should be required of anyone working in HR. Your world flips. You don't know if you'll be able to find a new job; what will happen to your insurance; if you'll be able to keep your car or your house; if your kids can continue in whatever education they might be enrolled in. And that's just for starters.

I don't think you can truly comprehend the vast effects of your amazingly wrong information. And I know at least I gave you a chance during my exit interview w/Carolyn to double-check. I specifically asked if every deduction, outside of taxes, was being stopped. And then I named them, one by one. And you said yes, yes, yes down the line. Except you had to check on insurance. And you did and came back in the room and said yes, those deductions were stopping, too.

So, did you actually check with someone with knowledge, like Gannett benefits? Or did you just need a drink of water?

Additionally, according to Amit, you gave us bad information on COBRA. You said the company would pay 35 percent of the costs for the first two months. Wrong. The employee pays 35 percent of the costs for the first two months, and the company pays 65 percent -- a HUGE difference (hundreds of dollars just for single coverage).

What the Guild is now telling us is that we're to let you know our tale of woe -- and you (or the company) will try to make things right. TRY? TRY?? You're not serious.

Just TRY to remove the fear that people have been living with.

Just TRY to assuage the worries that at least two former staffers have been dealing with because they or a member of the family had to go to the ER since June 30, and they've been worried sick about how they're going to pay for bills they're already getting.

Just TRY to take away the panic people felt when they realized that their FSA accounts would evaporate in days. (I don't know about the health savings stuff, but I'm guessing the same held true for anyone w/something besides the FSA). And then they wasted 10 days spending down money, and energy, that they didn't have to.

I personally have no faith that the company will make whole all the people who've suffered financial loss and emotional trauma because of your incompetence. Because of that, I've urged the Guild in the strongest way I can to file a grievance and prepare for arbitration so that those laid-off can still seek redress to make them whole. Because a vague promise of trying to fix things isn't going to do it.


Judy Wolf

While I sympathize with Judy and the others completely, I find it sad and pathetic that anyone still clings to the idea that the Newspaper Guild has any power to make Gannett do the right thing. A grievance? Arbitration? Oh, please.

Gannett officials made it clear from the outset that they do whatever suits them and they’re quite content to let the Guild members fantasize about arbitration and redress of grievances to no avail.

The details of this latest massacre at The Star make me absolutely giddy that I fired The Star and Gannett in October, 2000, for wasting my time and misusing my talents. I shudder to think what the last 11 years would have been like if I had stayed at a newspaper-turned-newspaper factory.

Time is our only irreplaceable commodity and I hope Judy and her colleagues can soon experience that glorious feeling of liberation that comes from turning in your Star ID and walking out the door for the last time.

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