‘SF Chron’ Buys Out 90 Workers So Far, But Layoff Fears Continue

By: Joe Strupp

More than 200 San Francisco Chronicle workers have requested to take a buyout offer put forth by the company last month, with at least 90 employees so far having their requests granted, a Chronicle spokeswoman said Friday.

The buyout offer, which was open to all 900 Newspaper Guild employees at the Chronicle, brought in 215 applications during August, according to spokeswoman Patty Hoyt. She said the paper continues to review the applications and hopes to decide by next week which staffers will get buyouts.

“People have been told since last Friday whether they were accepted, but the final decisions have not been made on all of them,” said Hoyt. “It is based on the business needs of each position. Does the position need to be replaced and is there some financial savings from granting a buyout to someone?”

When the buyouts were first announced on Aug. 1, shortly after the most recent guild contract was ratified, the paper set a goal of 120 buyouts to possibly avoid layoffs. Employees had until Aug. 31 to request a buyout and were not allowed to rescind their requests once they were made, according to the contract.

The buyout offer was made available at three levels based on age. Workers who are 55 and older would receive five weeks pay for each year of service, those between 40 and 54 would receive four weeks pay for each year of service, and those under 40 would take three weeks pay for each year. Each employee granted a buyout will also have their health benefits extended for one year.

The payments are coming from funds provided by both the guild and the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chronicle, Hoyt said. The specifics of the buyout were negotiated as part of the recent contract.

Calls to the Northern California Media Workers Guild Local 39521 were not immediately returned Friday morning. Publisher Frank Vega also could not be reached.

As soon as the buyout decisions were revealed this past week, rumors of looming layoffs also began. One source said word had gone around the paper that at least 30 staffers would be let go if the 120 buyout goal was not reached. But Hoyt said no decisions had been made on further job cutting.

“I know that magic [buyout] number is 120 and if we don’t get there, there is a possibility that we would have a handful of layoffs to get to that number,” Hoyt said. “The guild contract made it clear that that was possible. But there is nothing at this point substantiated.”

Another dispute arose after numerous employees mistakenly thought they had 45 days to consider a buyout, and the right to rescind their request. Hoyt said those options were clearly not part of the offer. Chronicle management has agreed to review each buyout case individually to see if the employee granted a buyout was misled, according to a management memo obtained by E&P.

The buyouts come at a time when the Chronicle is seeking to cut costs after several years of multi-million dollar losses, including a $62 million deficit in 2004. The budget woes made the recent contract bargaining among the most contentious ever as the paper prepared to publish with non-union workers when threats of a strike arose. But when the contract was ratified in July, the labor battle subsided, although talk of pending job cuts remained.

Some of the Chronicle’s financial difficulties date to 2000, when the paper was bought by Hearst, which had owned The San Francisco Examiner. Although the company sold the Examiner to a new owner, it allowed all Examiner and Chronicle employees to stay on the job at the Chronicle, creating an editorial workforce of more than 500 people. Although that number has decreased due to previous layoffs and buyouts, the staffing remains high.

Meanwhile, the Guild local has had its own problems during the past year with a depleted union health benefits fund, which forced some emergency benefit-rate hikes last fall and the cancellation of several scheduled raises.

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