Guild votes for furlough agreements

Buffalo Newspaper Guild members voted 65-2 on April 10 in favor of a tentative agreement that will allow Buffalo News management to furlough Guild members across the board, for the first time.

The approval of the agreement reflects member support for a plan the Guild bargaining team devised, which mitigates financial losses to members with little-to-no cost to the company.

It also reflects the mutual concern of both management and the Guild about the paper’s financial state, during the Covid-19 pandemic. A week later, Guild members in the Typographical Unit representing Prepress employees at The Buffalo News voted unanimously on April 17 in favor of a tentative agreement that will allow Buffalo News management to furlough most members for up to five weeks.

The agreement enables Prepress members to not only gain financially, in most cases, due to New York’s enhanced unemployment benefits, but it also saves the company about $45,000 above and beyond the two-week furlough directive laid out by Lee Enterprises.

“These furloughs will create working hardships on everyone at the paper,” Guild president Sandra Tan said. “Staffing is already thin across departments, so those of us taking up the slack for absent colleagues will bear heavy burdens. With the coronavirus threat continuing to grow, we need the community to recognize how important the local journalism we produce really is.”

She also cautioned that furloughed Guild members may wind up waiting weeks for their unemployment benefits to arrive, given the breakdowns in the state unemployment system. Though these benefits are retroactive, she urged all furloughed members to bear this in mind and to budget carefully.

In exchange for The News meeting the Guild bargaining team’s requirements that it mitigate financial hardship for members, we met our commitment to engage in intense-but-swift negotiations.

The bargaining team and Executive Committee brought forward the tentative agreement for a membership vote quickly enough to enable the company to begin scheduling furloughs next week. The agreements allow all Guild members in Editorial/Sun, Accounting, Inside Circulation and District Managers to be furloughed for two weeks between April 13 and June 28.

Furloughs for the Typographical Unit run began April 20 and also run through June 28. In most cases, employees will be furloughed for two weeks and may volunteer to be furloughed for up to three additional weeks for a total of five. Two key elements played a role in the ratification of the tentative agreement for the Guild:

  • The availability of enhanced unemployment benefits being offered in New York State, as part of the federal stimulus package, that will enable many Guild members to suffer no loss of pay.
  • The willingness of The News to allocate money to help bridge the gap between what higher-paid Guild members would receive in unemployment and what they would have received in their regular paychecks.

A $12,500 pool of funds will be created, in part, by allowing some Guild members in Editorial to volunteer for an additional week of furlough. The savings from the additional week will be redistributed as income to other Guild members facing an income loss. The Guild estimates that money will cover about half the difference between unemployment income and lost wages for affected Guild members.

The agreement also ensures that all other Guild employee benefits will be unaffected. A key element of the agreement for the Typographical Unit is that the company will cover 100% of the employees’ contributions toward their health care costs for every additional week of furlough an employee takes beyond the first two weeks. This is particularly important for Prepress members since many contribute 30% or more toward their weekly health care premiums and would have otherwise been forced to pay back huge sums to the company upon their return from furlough, creating a major financial hardship.

The furloughs will have no impact on the accrual of vacation time or count against an employee’s benefits for 2021. All employees will be returned to their previous positions and dayside or night shifts when furloughs are completed. For any working Prepress employee who cannot be furloughed, which currently consists of a single employee whose change in job status would trigger a major financial pension liability for The News, the Guild successfully negotiated with the company to elevate an employee’s pay for two weeks so the employee will not receive less income on the job than if the individual was furloughed.

The bargaining teams for the furlough agreements included Tan, Vice President Aaron Besecker, Secretary Keith McShea, Typographical Steward Karen Hipp and Guild Administrator Kim Leiser. In negotiating both furlough agreements with management over two weeks, the Guild committed to moving swiftly and seriously if it had a partner in management open to compromise and creative solutions.