According to Mel Pomponio, the Denver Newspaper Guild chair for the Rocky Mountain News, former staffers of the shuttered tabloid will no longer be employed by E.W. Scripps, the Rocky's owner, after today. It's fortunate, then, that a severance package under negotiation for nearly two months, is finally complete. This evening, impacted workers are gathering at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall on Logan Street to hear details of the pact, which calls for approximately $4.8 million to be divided among the 180 or so eligible Rocky veterans -- and Pomponio feels good about the deal.
"I'm just as mad at Scripps as everyone else for closing down the Rocky," she says. "But at the end of the day, they did come through. We didn't have severance language in the contract, so they could have given us a whole lot of nothing."
Pomponio, who was involved in every bargaining session related to the severance arrangement, says coming up with a number agreeable to both parties was tough.
"People in the newsroom talked about coming up with a formula -- x-number of weeks of pay for x-number of years of service," she notes. "But that's not how we bargained our package. We were interested in the highest possible dollar amount for our people, and all the proposals they threw on the table would have capped us at sixteen weeks or twenty weeks or twenty-four weeks -- and for folks who've been with the Rocky since 1968, or even for those who've been with the Rocky for thirteen years, that's not fair. So we chose instead to bargain for a lump sum. That way, we can break up the money on our own and take care of our folks."
An additional complication involved Kaiser Permanente, one of the major insurers of Rocky journalists, along with Aetna. "Kaiser has chosen to terminate our group-plan coverage effective May 31," Pomponio says. "They terminated us because we didn't have active employees on the payroll of the Denver Publishing Company" -- essentially, the Rocky -- "past May 31. There was a lot of back and forth with them, trying to work out a way that they would carry us. But when it became evident they weren't interested in doing business, we needed to work with our members who take Kaiser, as well as our retirees, all of whom are on Kaiser. We had to make sure that they had appropriate health care, and that Aetna was acceptable to them." She notes that "part of that $4.8 million will go toward making up the difference between their premium with Aetna and their premium with Kaiser, because Aetna is a little more expensive."
The bottom line is that "everybody will be covered," Pomponio continues. "Scripps is legally bound to make sure they are, and they did make sure." The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, better known as COBRA, requires that Rocky staffers have the opportunity to maintain insurance coverage at their current rates for eighteen months -- and because the employees qualify for the federal stimilus subsidy, "the government will pick up 65 percent of our health-care coverage, and we'll pay 35 percent, which is slightly more than we pay now," Pomponio reveals. "The second nine months, we'll be responsible for 100 percent of that premium plus a 2 percent administration fee."
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Employees' last regular paycheck is due on May 8 and will include accrued vacation and holiday time. After that, they'll receive their share of the $4.8 million "depending on how soon they sign the waiver and release form," Pomponio says. She stresses that "the separation package is not pension money, and it's not 401(k) money. It's completely separate. We all have pension money that we can either cash in or roll over into an IRA. A lot of people like to call this a pension, but it's not. It's money Scripps came up with."
Along the way, Pomponio signed up with INDenver Times, a project that's currently in limbo after its investors announced that it had fallen well short of its subscription goal. "We donated our time to INDenver Times for five weeks, and we're glad we did," she says. "We wanted to see it work just as much as anybody did. But when the end of that period came for us, we could either move forward and be paid or not -- and the decision was, we wouldn't be paid. So all but one of us decided to leave." She's currently part of a team that includes INDenver Times managing editor Steve Foster and ex-Rocky business writer David Milstead, who are hoping to interest new investors on a variation of the original INDT plan. But she's also looking for a day job. As she puts it, "I want to find the solution to keeping journalism an important part of our society, and one that people can make a living wage at -- but I also need to feed my family."
The severance package should help Pomponio in that regard, at least for a while -- and she's pleased with the results. "Scripps and the Guild started a mile-and-a-half apart, and it was a long process to get us to where we are," she says. "But it was worth it. We stayed at the table until we knew we had the best deal we could get."