Journalists Turn Unpaid Time Off Into ‘Fur-cation’

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By: Joe Strupp

Even with all the stress and scheduling madness wrought by furloughs and other methods of cost-cutting, there are those who have adapted to make the best of a bad situation, while others have organized ways to help colleagues get through such times.

At least one newspaper staffer reports timing his furlough to the birth of his new baby, while others found similar ways to fill time that took their minds off their troubles, at least for a while.

“I had a week off for my new family,” recalls Matt Sartwell, a reporter at The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., whose son, Jake, was born March 17 during his furlough week. “The pay reduction is troubling,” he admits, but he doesn’t regret the Gannett policy that requires furloughed staffers to stay away from anything work-related. “One good thing is you don’t stress out about work,” he adds.

At The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., another new dad, Adam Jude, took advantage of a unique policy his paper follows that allowed a fellow staffer to take a second week of unpaid leave and absorb his furlough. That let Jude keep the week’s pay he would have lost, at a time when baby costs were up for his new daughter.

Six furloughed Register-Guard employees were able to get other staffers to take a second week for them. Among those volunteers was Shelby Martin, a 23-year-old reporter who said she wanted the extra time off, having just two days vacation this year as a new employee. Although she admits she will lose more than $1,200 in pay, she doesn’t mind. “When I knew it was a possibility, I jumped at the chance,” says Martin, who used many of the days off to visit her girlfriend in San Francisco. “I’m used to not having any money, and I know people are in different situations ? they have families and mortgages, and I was glad to help.”

At the St. Paul Pioneer Press, guild leaders urged furloughed employees to use the time off in a beneficial way, even providing them a list of charities and community groups they could serve. Staffers have volunteered at a local school and homeless shelter, among other places.

“It made it less about me moping around and more about reconnecting with others,” says Fred Melo, a public safety reporter since 2005 who spent a day at Bolder Options, a local youth mentoring agency that works with troubled kids. “I also went to the gym and moved in with a friend. I spent three days in Milwaukee with another friend.”

Some employees even found a silver lining in their unemployment insurance, available depending on their state of residence. Among the states that pay such benefits is New Jersey, which has six Gannett dailies.

Others eased the pain by taking the days over a longer period of time. “Then it is not all in one paycheck,” says Mara Gottfried, another Pioneer Press scribe and Newspaper Guild leader at the paper. “They let me connect it to vacation time.”

Henry Freeman, editor of The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., says he spent time in Florida with a brother and had to get used to being out of touch: “It wasn’t hard at all after the first day,” he laughs. “I tell people they can get by without calling in for a week.”

Then there’s the Furlough House Swap, conceived by Gannett Digital employees Laura Cochran and Jody Gersh. The pair created a Web site in the mode of Craigslist and a realtor page, on which the furloughed can list their homes for use by others in a swap arrangement. The idea was to make it easy for someone on “fur-cation” to get out of town at a cheap price.

“You can post where your furlough is and where you are looking to travel and if you have a place to swap,” Cochran explains. “The idea is to match up people in the same furlough week. You can even post if you have a spare room and are not leaving.”

As of early April, more than a dozen postings from eight states were up, many with a real Facebook feel of casualness and, often, interesting pitches and requests. “I live in a townhouse with four twenty-something women,” writes one woman listing her Arlington, Va., place. “I love to meet new people and travel, so this is ideal.”

Another post, by a New Orleans Times-Picayune copy editor, states some drawbacks up front: “One cat. Teenage son mostly keeps the cigarettes out on the deck. One spare room, with a bunch of college son’s drum gear.” There is also the Tampa, Fla. posting that declares: “You really have to like pets.”

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