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Rancor plagues Chronicle employee buyouts

120 to be told they can't reconsider applications and must resign

UPDATE: The union has filed two grievances against the San Francisco Chronicle's management based on the inability of staff to reconsider buyout applications and the threat of as many as 30 involuntary layoffs. See the memo below.

These employees -- some of whom have worked for the Chronicle and/or the Examiner for decades -- ... were given no time to review the decision.

-- memo from union leader Doug Cuthbertson

Staffing cuts at the San Francisco Chronicle are happening more swiftly than most people in the newsroom had anticipated, and in a manner that's forced the resignations of some who apparently were not sure they wanted to go.

About 120 Chronicle employees, including several of the paper's well-known veteran journalists, have been or are soon to be told that they must leave -- even though many thought they had time to reconsider their earlier applications for an employee-buyout option.

Among those on their way out, according to several people in the newsroom: columnist and editorial writer Ken Garcia, sports writer Glenn Dickey and religion writer Don Lattin. So far about 90 people have been told to leave, so more names will filter out over the next week.

The severance packages, which are designed to entice the most experienced employees to leave, are also drawing fire from some local journalists who warn that the paper could suffer a loss of institutional memory.

The Northern California Media Workers Guild -- the union representing about 900 employees at the Chronicle, half of them in the newsroom -- said it was surprised that management was telling union members they must leave their jobs and accept a lump-sum payments without the chance to mull their choices with family and financial advisers.

Michael Cabanatuan, a Chronicle reporter and president of the union, said he was led to believe that some employees had a 45-day period in which to withdraw their applications. "They're saying that if you applied you've essentially offered to resign," Mr. Cabanatuan said. "We obviously disagree."

The union told Chronicle staff this week that management had agreed to make individual exceptions, but it wasn't clear under what circumstances. A management spokeswoman, Patricia Hoyt, responded that the paper won't budge on whom it wants out the door. She also declined to specify how many jobs will be cut from the newsroom, and how many from other departments.

One Chronicle staffer who did not want to be identified said departing workers received "no acknowledgment, not even a sheet cake, from the managers. No thank you notes. No speeches. Everything but armed security guards. It's ugly."

Some journalists said they could not talk on the record because they believed documents they were made to sign under the agreement would prohibit them from speaking ill of the paper. Others were waiting to hear a definitive resolution before deciding what to do, if in fact they had a choice anymore.

People put in for these buyouts. It shouldn't be a surprise that they were accepted.

-- Chronicle spokeswoman Patricia Hoyt

Mr. Lattin, the religion writer, has written for the Chronicle, and the Examiner before that, a total of 28 years. He's currently on unpaid leave to write a book, and thinks he can make a living at it. He applied for the buyout and was accepted. He wrote in an e-mail that he's still "waiting to see the final numbers before making a final decision."

"If I go, I will also do some freelance writing, and may even get a job at another newspaper," Mr. Lattin wrote. "I really don't know at this point. I am considering any and all offers."

The notices of termination, starting Sept. 8, asked some employees to leave by today -- sending waves of panic through the newsroom, several journalists said. The union objected to management's approach and the two sides are continuing to talk.

Ms. Hoyt, the Chronicle spokeswoman, said the language in the application was clear: Employees agreed to give up their jobs when they applied for the buyouts. For legal reasons, she said, those 40 years old and older have 45 days in which to sign a "separation agreement" that holds the paper immune from lawsuits and gags employees about trade secrets -- but they did not have 45 days to decide whether or not to leave. Those under 40 had no choice but to sign.

In exchange they get up to five weeks' worth of pay up-front for every year of service, up to two years' pay. But the plan is weighted to nudge older employees out: Including what they get from the existing retirement plan, workers 55 and older get five weeks' pay for every year, those 40 and older get four, and those under 40 get three.

The latest round of buyouts comes after months of tense negotiations over a contract that expired July 1. The Chronicle announced that it was losing $62 million a year and needed to reduce its workforce.

After both sides braced for a strike, the union ratified a new contract later that month that called for pay cuts for some, longer working hours for part-time employees and other union concessions. The union's one clear victory was an agreement that management would lay off workers selectively only if fewer than 120 applied for the retirement-incentive package.

By this week at least 215 had applied. Since only 120 will be accepted, the rest will keep their jobs, and there will presumably be no involuntary layoffs.

The loss of 120 Guild positions will be the steepest onetime workforce cut since 2000, when the staffs of the Chronicle competing San Francisco Examiner merged in a takeover of the Chronicle by the Examiner's owner, the Hearst Corporation. The Guild estimates it has lost about 200 jobs at the Chronicle since then through layoffs and attrition.

On Wednesday, the union sent out a memo that outlined the union's objections, and said that management had agreed to "consider on a case by case basis any objections" due to the misunderstanding about the resignation clause, which management maintains gave employees only until Aug. 31 -- before hearing word of their acceptance -- to retract.

The memo said in part: "this week some employees whose bid for a buyout was accepted were told that they must leave their jobs by Friday of this week, without having received a written final description of the terms of the buyout. These employees -- some of whom have worked for the Chronicle and/or the Examiner for decades -- also were given no time to review the decision."

Ms. Hoyt said the union memo was not entirely accurate, and that management would have an official response soon. She said the number of people told to leave within one week was fewer than 25. She also declined to specify how many of the guild members whose applications were accepted work in the newsroom.

"People put in for these buyouts," she said. "It shouldn't be a surprise that they were accepted. The people we've accepted are working with their managers about when their departure date will be."

Paul Kleyman, editor of Aging Today and a board member of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the move to rid the paper of experienced journalists sends the wrong message to the newsroom.

"No doubt, some wanted the buyout, which is why they applied, and will use it as a step into the next phase of their retirement or midlife careers," he wrote in an e-mail.

But, he wrote, the strategy could be bad for journalism. "The pattern of eliminating the most seasoned editorial staff -- often dismissed as 'old war horses' or 'dead wood' who should make way for new talent -- should raise alarms in local media about what I call the 'younging down' of the media. News organizations need to consider the loss of institutional memory, or knowledge depth about certain topics or the workings of public institutions, of deep-bench Rolodexes, of the mentorship every department needs to train new or emerging reporters."

One journalist who did not apply for the buyout, but still didn't want to be named to avoid getting caught up in labor strife, had this to say the buyout offer: "This is about as humane a way to trim staff as possible. But they seem to be implementing it really badly."

Memo to the Chronicle staff from the Northern California Media Workers Guild:

Sent: Wednesday, September 14, 2005 5:49 PM

Sept. 14, 2005

Memo to Chronicle Guild members
From Doug Cuthbertson, Executive Officer

In meetings this week, the Chronicle has assured the Guild that its abrupt terminations of employees who applied for the buyout will be halted.

Management representatives said they would consider on a case by case basis any objections under various circumstances:

° Employees may not want to accept the buyouts even though they applied during the month of August, on grounds they believed an offer would give them the option of accepting or turning it down.

° Employees may want to have the buyout documentation in hand to review for themselves, and with family, financial counselors, etc., before making a decision and signing off.

° Employees may want to work out a termination date "in collaboration with" their department head, as an early company Q&A sheet had promised.

° Some employees had expected to have up to 45 days to consider the buyout document before having to sign it, and up to 7 days after that to rescind the signature, under legal provisions previously cited by the company in writing and verbally by supervisors. The Guild had underscored this provision in earlier memos and Q&A bulletins to members, after learning of these terms from management representatives during the bargaining process.

By way of background, this week some employees whose bid for a buyout was accepted were told that they must leave their jobs by Friday of this week, without having received a written final description of the terms of the buyout. These employees -- some of whom have worked for the Chronicle and/or the Examiner for decades -- also were given no time to review the decision.

In its discussions with the company, the Guild made a formal objection to one provision of the management buyout acceptance letter which states that employees upon acceptance are terminated no matter what. The Guild also made it clear that we are prepared to litigate if the Chronicle moves ahead and terminates employees without giving them time to consider their decision.

At this point, we don't know how many employees who were granted the buyout now wish they had not applied, or how many others have unanswered questions about how the Company has handled their case. We ask that any employees with questions about their status consult with their Guild representatives as soon as possible. Krhodes@sfchronicle.com, dcuthbertson@mediaworkers.org mcabanatuan@sfchronicle.com

Finally, we have pointed out to the company that such conduct on its part has a devastating effect not only on the employees who are leaving but on those who are remaining behind.

Grievance memo from the Guild:

Date: Tue, 20 Sep 2005 17:41:08 -0700 (PDT)

September 20, 2005
Memo to Guild Members
>From Doug Cuthbertson, Executive Officer

Today the Guild filed two grievances in connection with the Chronicle’s administration of the current Voluntary Reduction in Force Program.

The first grievance is based on the Chronicle’s rejection of more than half the applicants for voluntary termination buyouts. More than 220 employees applied for 120 buyouts, but the Chronicle accepted only about 90. It apparently intends to achieve the remainder of the cuts possibility as many as 30 positions by firing employees under the involuntary termination provisions of the contract.

We are seeking as a remedy that the Chronicle accept a reasonable number of applicants in order to reduce or eliminate the number of involuntary terminations to which it would resort in order to accomplish the overall goal of 120 job cuts.

The second grievance arises from the Chronicle’s refusal to permit some employees to withdraw their name from consideration for voluntary termination during the 45-day period after August 31, 2005, after giving material misrepresentations and/or omissions about employees’ rights to do so. Management communications, both oral and written, and representations given the Guild at the bargaining table, clearly led employees to believe they would have 45 days to consider terminating their employment and accepting a buyout, after they had been given written termination agreements. The Guild and its members, and many managers, we believe, were stunned when employees whose bids were accepted were told their terminations were irreversible and they had no choice but to leave, with or without buyout moneys

The Guild seeks as a remedy in this second grievance:

That employees who have been involuntarily terminated under the voluntary termination program be reinstated with full seniority, back pay, and benefits, as well as compensatory damages related to the Chronicle's violation of the agreement; That the Chronicle rescind Gary Anderson's September 8, 2005 letter regarding "Acceptance of Application for Voluntary termination” and his September 16, 2005 memo to "all employees"; That employees receive a 45 day period of time from the settlement of the grievance within which to withdraw their name from consideration under the voluntary termination program.

We have requested a meeting with management over these grievances, which could move on to arbitration, if not resolved.

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