‘Reading Eagle’ Layoffs Offer No Severance

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By: Joe Strupp

In the current economy and newspaper industry downturn, it is not unusual that a newspaper like the Reading (Pa.) Eagle would lay off 50 employees, as it did last week.

But what has some departed staffers irked even more is the lack of severance pay, even for some with more than 30 years at the paper. They also received just two weeks of extended health care, according to newspaper officials.

“What has most people upset is there is absolutely no severance pay,” said Al Walentis, who had worked at the paper since 1974 and served as multimedia projects coordinator when he was let go Thursday. “I tried to show some professionalism. I offered to help explain the job to someone else who would take over, but they said no.”

Walentis, 57, said he was asked to leave Thursday soon after finding out his job had been terminated.

The same was true for Rebecca VanderMeulen, a four-year reporter. “I am not surprised it happened, just the way it happened,” she said, referring to the lack of severance and being escorted from the building. “I wanted to stay and wrap up some loose ends [on her beat], but they didn’t think it was appropriate.”

Assistant Photo Editor Ron Romanski might have the longest tenure at the paper, at 45 years. He said his father was a chief photographer years before him. “It shocks everybody I talk to,” he says of the lack of severance. “I’m thinking about suing them. I didn?t think it would happen to me.”

A story in the Friday paper reported the layoffs, but made no mention of the denied severance or health benefit decisions. It said the cutbacks represented about 12% of the paper’s work force.

“The move was a necessary step to cope with the economy and the troubles the newspaper industry specifically is facing in 2009,” the paper quoted Publisher William Flippin as saying in a statement.

“We are doing what we can to operate as efficiently as possible on our new press in our new format,” Flippin added in the story. “The timing is unfortunate with the economy flat. We needed to take this action to have a chance to survive.”

Flippin did not immediately return calls for comment from E&P Tuesday. The cuts occurred just months after the paper put a new printing plant into operation in February.

Associate Publisher Larry Orkus declined to comment on the situation, but confirmed in an e-mail that the layoffs had occurred without severance pay. He said each worker was given two weeks of health benefits, which covered the period needed to apply for COBRA insurance.

Orkus said 18 of the layoffs occurred in the newsroom. He added that 368 employees remain on the job.

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