Friday, May 2, 2008

Troubled daily lays off one more


A string of layoffs at the Santa Barbara News-Press continued yesterday when a sports writer who had been working at the paper for the past nine months was cut from the staff.
The layoff came on the heels of a wave of at least nine others on Thursday, which included two editors and a number of accounting, advertising and sales persons — none of whom receive any protections from the Teamsters Union, which represents newsroom employees.

But Union officials say Kyle Jahner, the 23-year-old who was hired by a temporary employment agency with an Ohio address, shouldn’t have been let go until the union was consulted.
“It is tragic that so many people who have no union protection have been laid off,” said Dawn Hobbs, a former News-Press reporter who was one of eight reporters fired in early 2007 for engaging in activities the paper’s management called “disloyal.” “But now the News-Press management has crossed the line and axed a temporary employee who had been performing newsroom reporting work, who the union considers to be part of the bargaining unit.”
Hobbs said union officials sent News-Press attorney Barry Cappello and the paper’s chief negotiator Michael Zinser a letter yesterday morning demanding the paper notify them and bargain before any union employee was laid off. As of last night, Hobbs said the union had not received any response from either man.
“The letter clearly states that this is the law,” Hobbs said.
The union could now file an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board over Jahner’s dismissal, but Hobbs said that decision has not yet been made.
When it became clear the paper was hiring temporary employees last year, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge insisting the involved employees deserved to be part of the union because, “They are doing the work of union members, were hired in a management attempt to keep the bargaining unit artificially small, and they appear to be there long term,” Hobbs said.
Phone calls seeking comment from Cappello were not immediately returned to the Daily Sound.
On Thursday, Cappello said 10 people were laid off, but as far as Hobbs knows, only nine were let go. Jahner made that number 10.
Jahner, who came to the paper last July after graduating from the University of Southern California with a degree in Journalism, said he received a phone call at 10:45 a.m. yesterday from a firm called Top Echelon Contracting, which told him he was no longer employed at the News-Press. He said in many ways the company was his employer while working at the paper.
Each week Jahner said he faxed his timecard to Echelon Contracting which, according to its Web site, handles “All of the financial, administrative, and legal details associated with being the employer.”
Jahner said he suspected one of the reasons the News-Press kept him on as a temporary employee, who worked full-time for nine months, was so it would be easy to purge him whenever it pleased.
“They pretty much proved that assumption to be correct,” he said. “If they fire everyone they won’t have to pay anyone, but they also won’t have a product; it’s kind of an interesting strategy they’re taking.”
Nearly 80 employees have either fled the paper or been fired since July 6, 2006, when six of the paper’s top editors resigned en masse. The blanket resignation sent the community into a flurry of outrage over how News-Press owner and co-publisher Wendy McCaw has operated the paper since she purchased it from the New York Times in 2000.
Since that July day, the paper’s owner has been engaged in a contentious battle with a branch of the Teamsters Union, which represents dozens of current and former newsroom employees.
Thursday was the first time any employees had bee laid off since the labor dispute began.
Cappello told the Daily Sound Thursday the cutbacks are the result of declining advertising revenue, circulation, and “excessive litigation” caused by the unionization effort, which the paper has vehemently fought.
Circulation figures posted on a local blog say circulation at the News-Press has dropped about 7 percent in the past six months — a far steeper decline than other Central Coast newspapers.
In an internal memo circulated to News-Press employees on Thursday, McCaw and the paper’s co-publisher Arthur von Wiesenberger, called the layoffs a “company-wide reorganization,” which was spurred in part by a union effort to get subscribers to cancer the paper (a tactic the union used to get McCaw to honor the union and bargain). The memo says “thousands” of subscribers canceled.
Of the nine confirmed layoffs on Thursday, two were editors, including sports editor Barry Punzal, who had worked at the paper for 25 years.
Punzal said he tried to save the sports section from what was happening with the rest of the paper and didn’t see himself as an employee of McCaw, but rather a servant of the sports community.
He said being fired after 25 years of staunch loyalty, even over the past two years, was like having his “heart ripped out.”
For Jahner, things are different. He said he doesn’t have any roots in the community, but is still disappointed because he saw the sports section as the bright light of the paper.
“I feel like we were doing a pretty good job of giving really good high school and college coverage of local sports and that’s one of the few things left in the paper that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “That’s one of the few things that’s keeping them going.”

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