As noted in a January 20 blog about Channel 9, the Gannett Company, whose portfolio includes 9News and the Fort Collins Coloradoan, among many other media properties nationwide, announced that in an attempt to prevent further layoffs, the vast majority of its 31,000-person workforce would be required to take a week off without pay.
This strategy seems far preferable to the sort of sweeping job cuts many media companies have announced of late, including Clear Channel, which disappeared an estimated local eighteen staffers on Tuesday. After all, one week off translates to a little under 2 percent of an individual's annual salary, and getting the opportunity to stay home for a week is at least some compensation for the loss of income. But Bob Moore, editor of the Coloradoan, doesn't minimize the sacrifice being asked of his employees.
The hit to salaries isn't huge "in a simple mathematical sense," Moore concedes. "But I think what that misses is that the 2 percent isn't spread out over the whole year. It's concentrated in the week you take the furlough. Like a lot of businesses, the Coloradoan has some people who are living paycheck to paycheck, so that's a pretty big issue for them. For that week, they'll have a 100 percent reduction." The Coloradoan is allowing workers to take one day off per week for five weeks in situations where that's allowable under labor laws -- but for most of those on the payroll, including him, taking the entire week off is the only option.
Scheduling is also a challenge. Gannett wants all the furloughs to have been completed by March 29 -- the end of 2009's first fiscal quarter. And as Moore points out, "We're not like a manufacturing plant, where we can just shut down for a week. We have to continue producing our product -- and continue producing it at as high a level as we can during the furlough period." Nevertheless, Moore says that in the Coloradoan newsroom, at least, managers were able to accomodate employees' requests for specific weeks off: "We didn't have to tell anybody, 'You have to take this week off.'"
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According to Moore, the early feedback he's heard in regard to the program has been fairly positive under the circumstances. "The first reaction was some sense of happiness that there wasn't a round of layoffs... We've been luckier than many newsrooms when it comes to layoffs. We had some attrition, and in December, Gannett did a 10 percent payroll deduction. But nobody knows from one day to the next what their status is. So, as an alternative to layoffs, the furlough concept is welcome. Having said that, though, people are just now starting to take their furloughs. It will be interesting to see how the morale holds up as it really starts to impact their pocketbook."
Of course, the alternative is considerably worse. "Before, we've imposed permanent fixes -- either layoffs or not filling vacancies," Moore says. "And once you lose a position, you're not getting back. So the fact that I'm going to go home for a week and not do any work, but at the end of that week, I have a job to come back to -- that's important to me, and I think it's important to the people I work with, too.
"But everybody also realizes there are no guarantees here," he goes on. "We'd all love to think that once we finish with these furloughs, we won't have to worry about layoffs down the road. But Gannett's been pretty up-front about that. They've said, 'We can't make those guarantees, because we don't know what the economy is going to do over the next few months."
The program is designed to get the company through a period that every credible economist expects to be relentlessly grim in the hope that the tide will begin to turn shortly thereafter. Whether it will is another matter, Moore acknowledges -- "but at least this gives us a fighting chance that when the economy does come back, we'll have the staff we need to really make a difference in our community."