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Opinion Washingtonian staffers orchestrate work stoppage over CEO’s ‘public threat to our livelihoods’

(Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Andrew Beaujon, a senior editor at Washingtonian, says that signals from management indicated that the magazine had pulled through the pandemic in okay shape. “It was tough for us as it was for a lot of other publications, but the message we got at the beginning of the year was that things were getting back on track,” says Beaujon.

Staffers received a different message on Thursday, however, via an op-ed in The Post from Cathy Merrill, chief executive of Washingtonian Media. There was a preemptive gist to the piece, which at one point bore the headline, “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office.” The author spelled out those risks in this paragraph:

While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like. I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — “extra.” It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture. If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to “contractor.” Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation. Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.

Employees of Washingtonian, as it turns out, felt a “strong incentive” to provide some feedback on those ideas: On Friday, staffers tweeted a common message of defiance in reply to what they termed a “public threat” to their livelihoods. They staged an impromptu work stoppage:

Beaujon says he doesn’t believe there was any dissent within the ranks to the work stoppage. “What we are trying to do with this was make the point that if she’s going to threaten us publicly, then we have to respond publicly," he says. (Disclosure: Beaujon is a former colleague and current friend of the Erik Wemple Blog, as is Washingtonian Editor Michael Schaffer.) There’s a reopening committee at the Washingtonian that’s discussing how the magazine and its staff of two dozen journalists will head back into the office, which moved from L Street to K Street during the pandemic — a development that was planned before the pandemic.

Such a committee would appear to be the ideal locale to air management’s insistence on a full return to office work. Yet Merrill chose one of the country’s most trafficked journalistic platforms to riff about “tempting” benefit cutbacks. Worse, Merrill’s kicker reads: “So although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security. Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”

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In March 2020, Merrill wrote her first pandemic-oriented op-ed for The Post, proclaiming her concerns over prolonged lockdown measures. “May 15 is eight weeks away,” wrote Merrill, attacking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on avoiding gatherings. “How many of the officials setting emergency policy have ever run a small business? Very few, I suspect. To be clear: Two months is not a hiatus; it is a death sentence for small business.” Pandemic financial dread took hold at Washingtonian, which over the course of 2020 took the following measures: It “wiped out” its freelance budget, according to sources; it mandated two-week furloughs for employees; it cut the pay of staffers at the high end of the pay scale; suspended 401(k) matches; and it stopped employing editorial fellows in charge of fact-checking the magazine’s journalism. Merrill cut her own pay by 50 percent.

To Merrill’s credit, she restored back pay, rescinded pay cuts, distributed 2020 year-end bonuses, gave employees a week off at year’s end and resumed the 401(k) contributions, though the freelance budget remains a fraction of its former dimensions. In any case, some editorial staffers took on more work during the pandemic and cooperated with austerity measures, only to come out of the experience with an op-ed from the CEO riffing about the temptations of scrapping health-care benefits. “This is just a dagger,” says one Washingtonian staffer.

That the op-ed represents ill-advised management is beyond dispute. But would the steps outlined by Merrill even pass legal muster? Employment attorney Debra Katz tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Merrill is laying out a “completely reckless strategy,” in light of the “fights over whether Uber drivers and others were appropriately classified as independent contractors (NOT), and [the Labor Department’s] rescission of its benighted guidance on independent contractors.” Employers "can’t just reclassify employees by changing their label this way,” writes Katz in an email, adding that there’s a 12-factor test used to make these sorts of determinations. “The key factor regardless of the test used is whether an employer has the right to control the manner and means by which work is accomplished.” (Merrill tells this blog that she didn’t engage a lawyer to game out the legal implications of her ideas.)

Newsrooms will negotiate these manners and means in the months to come. Matt Pearce, a Los Angeles Times reporter, says his colleagues are now trying to sort out their own post-pandemic office life. As president of Media Guild of the West, a NewsGuild local that represents the Los Angeles Times and several other newsrooms in California, Arizona and Texas, Pearce is evaluating a survey of Los Angeles Times journalists regarding their preferences on this topic.

“Overwhelmingly, our members told us they would prefer to come back to the office a few days a week rather than five days a week,” says Pearce. Sure, he says, it’s great to build social capital via birthday celebrations, important meetings and brainstorming sessions possible only in a physical space. On the other hand: “So much of the job is like being on the factory line — you’re on the phone interviewing, you’re going out to the scene, you’re sitting down writing, sitting down editing, sitting down copy editing, looking for errors,” says Pearce. Those latter functions require “focus on the product, not on your co-workers,” he argues.

While Merrill acknowledged in her op-ed that “the future employment scene will probably be some type of hybrid,” on balance the layers and complications get short shrift in her formulation, which threatens to deprive her own organization of post-pandemic productivity. “There are a lot of advantages to both sides of the debate,” says Pearce, who counsels evaluating the whole picture “rather than writing a scolding piece about how you’re going to reduce your workers to contractors if you don’t think they’re working as hard anymore.”

Merrill issued a statement to this blog: “Washingtonian embraces a culture in which employees are able to express themselves openly. I value each member of our team not only on a professional level but on a personal one as well. I could not be more proud of their work and achievements under the incredibly difficult circumstances of the past year. I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status. I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else.”

She gave a more piercing self-evaluation via phone: “Everyone needs an editor," she told us. "I wish I had run my piece by mine.”

Read more:

Washingtonian staff goes on publishing strike after CEO’s op-ed about remote work

Cathy Merrill: As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work

Sian Beilock: Why I worry remote schedules could mean fewer women in the office

Mitch Daniels: An economist predicted work from home in 1979. Here’s what he expected.