Friday, May 02, 2008

Evicted From A House of Horrors

Someone over at Wendy McCaw's News-Press has a cruel sense of timing. On the day when the paper ran a story on where in Santa Barbara one could find a $90 hamburger, it sent no less than nine of its employees to the bread line. How ironic is that?

If you had 25 plus years of working at a place, as was the case with sports editor Barry Punzal, or Bob Klinger (28 years) most employers would give you a gold watch when you leave. At the News-Press they give you directions on how to find the unemployment office.

As layoffs go, this one was particularly heartless. No warning. No informational meetings with employees. No severance packages. No class. It was typical Wendy.

In a memo to employees who escaped the hatchet, management cited two reasons for the layoffs; a general downturn in the newspaper industry and the legal expenses that the News-Press had incurred in battling, among others, the Teamsters Union.

However, neighboring newspapers both to the north and the south had managed to elude subscription declines. If McCaw had run the News-Press like a real newspaper instead of like her personal blog perhaps the News-Press too could have avoided a drop in circulation.

And of course given her track record of litigiousness, McCaw's complaint that, in essence, the attorney's fees are breaking her business, is a little like the child who murders her parents then throws herself on the mercy of the court on the grounds that she's an orphan.

The end of Punzal's 25 years at the News-Press came almost exactly at high noon yesterday. He was at his desk working when the "angel of death" herself, human resources director Yolanda Apodaca (whom he had considered a friend) came to his desk and said "come walk with me."

He followed her to a conference room, one where over the last two years he had seen colleagues walk into as News-Press employees and emerge from as former employees. Punzal had come to think of the room as being like a "gas chamber." Inside the room Apodaca was joined by the paper's accountant, Norman Colavincenzo, who Punzal described as being dressed "like a mortician."

There they delivered the news to him. Apodaca told him that people were being let go solely for monetary reasons and that he was one of those being cut. Punzal says he responded by raising his voice a bit and asking Apodaca what was really going on and what this was about. Apodaca replied by saying that he was making it too "personal."

When I asked how he felt about being laid off he said he was "torn up" and that it felt like being "jilted."

Punzal became sports editor after Gerry Spratt left the position in July 2006 shortly after many of the paper's top editors had resigned out of disagreement with the direction that McCaw was taking the News-Press in. At 52 years of age, Punzal has never really worked in any business other than newspapers.

Klinger was an image technician at the News-Press. According to Punzal he had a brain tumor a few years ago, underwent surgery and then returned to work. Punzal described him as being a very efficient worker.

Besides Punzal and Klinger here is the list of names who have been confirmed as having been laid off on Thursday:

  • Mindy Spar, features editor

  • Tomasa Moran, accounting

  • Mimi Mork, circulation

  • Elena Villenueva, retail advertising

  • Joby Elkins, prepress

  • Greg Brechbiel, creative services

  • Jennifer Engriser, celebrations and obituaries

    That's nine employees. Sources, who wish to remain anonymous, tell me the number of layoffs are expected to rise to as many as the 16 that I originally reported, so there could very well be additional layoffs to come today.

    And if you're wondering where associate editor Scott Steepleton was on layoff day, the answer is, on a two-week vacation.

    So where does the Teamsters Union stand in all of this? All of the layoffs that were announced yesterday were of non-union employees, that is either managers or non-newsroom personnel.

    Former News-Press reporter and union activist Dawn Hobbs, who is hoping to be reinstated, had this to say on behalf of the Union:

    We are greatly saddened the News-Press co-publishers have decided to take this action and turn the lives of many more employees upside down. In fact, it just breaks my heart.

    But while the co-publishers blame us for this massive lay-off that management decided to implement, we do not know what the News-Press' true financial picture is, what the various causes of that condition may be, or whether that condition even warrants any layoffs.

    As for the company's relationship with the union, it is important to note that they have made the decision to file numerous charges that have been dismissed, they have decided to extravagantly fight the union and other perceived adversaries in every available forum, and they have had numerous opportunities to settle this labor dispute, opportunities which are still open to management if it wishes to reconcile.

    This could have all been resolved beginning in July 2006 before we launched the subscription cancellation campaign calling for union recognition, or after our union vote in September 2006, which the company challenged with frivolous objections, or even after the ruling last December when the company was found guilty on 15 unfair labor practice charges, which the company again appealed.

    We remain willing to discuss all employment-related issues at the bargaining table. For its part, the union has been seeking to protect employees from the beginning and -- even after all that has transpired -- we still hope to find a way to work cooperatively with management.

    After a day like yesterday, my only question is this; with Ms. Engriser no longer working at the obituary desk, who's going to write up the necrology of the News-Press?