Overtime Overdue p.12

By: TONY CASE FOLLOWING EMPLOYEE COMPLAINTS and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Pottsville (Pa.) Republican has started paying reporters overtime and has agreed to give former employees back pay.
The newspaper had considered editorial employees professionals and exempt from hourly overtime. But a group of workers disagreed ? and so did federal labor officials.
The 28,000-circulation daily ? whose president and publisher, Uzal H. Martz Jr., is chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, the industry's largest trade group ? informed past employees in a letter they were "entitled to a recalculation of the amounts paid for night assignments during your employment with us. Under the supervision and with the approval of the Wage and Hour Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor, we are making this payment to you voluntarily."
Michael Corcoran, Labor Department district director with jurisdiction over Pottsville, would not discuss dealings with the Republican, but did lay out the department's guidelines for classifying a worker as a professional.
It appears the government looks at employees much differently than the newspaper did.
While scores of businesses ? including some news organizations ? insist white-collar, salaried employees aren't entitled to overtime compensation, the Labor Department has a narrower view.
Corcoran characterized a professional as someone who has a supervisory role or one who has "suffered through a prolonged course of specialized study," such as a doctor, lawyer or certified public accountant.
"Individuals doing the nuts-and-bolts, everyday work of a company are probably not going to be exempt from overtime," he said.
When asked whether news staffers wouldn't be included in that group, the official responded, "Beat reporters are not exempt."
The Republican, however, paid employees a daily lump sum, rather than hourly overtime, for hours put in beyond the standard eight.
"I once worked 23 hours straight and got just $40," said a former Republican reporter who is now at another newspaper and asked not to be identified. "Everybody always thought this was a bogus system, but we didn't think there was any way to change it."
Even though he worked in Pottsville for two years, the Labor Department told him he could draw only seven months' back pay because of a statute of limitations.
He thinks that's rotten.
"It's a shame that the Republican is only doing what is absolutely required by the Department of Labor," he said.
Because the Republican is an evening paper, the reporter related, he and his colleagues often worked unusually long days.
Journalists routinely filed stories late into the night, hours after the copy desk had gone home. It wasn't out of the ordinary for a writer, after having worked until the wee hours, to have to return to the newsroom first thing in the morning to go over a piece with an editor.
The Republican, being a small-town paper, tended to hire journalists fresh out of college, according to the reporter. While many felt they were being done wrong, they were intimidated about taking up the overtime issue with their bosses.
"You didn't feel like you carried a lot of weight," he said. "You were just happy to have a job."
"The Republican advertised itself as a stepping stone ? you'd cover some night assignments, sure, but then you'd be out of there," said another past reporter at the paper. "Coming out of college, that sounds fabulous. But you didn't realize that you would spend most of the day plugging holes, coming up with story ideas and working 12 hours.
"You're working all these hours and wondering why you're not getting paid for the whole thing," she added. "You'd get so mentally drained that you'd either quit or find a job someplace else in the newspaper industry, or outside the business."
The reporter, who also has taken a job at another daily and wished to remain anonymous, described the mood in the Republican newsroom as "hostile" during the time she worked there.
"The Republican uses people up so quickly," she said. "It's a merry-go-round. They easily hire six new reporters every year ? and that's with a staff of 10."
Her starting salary at the Republican, having no previous work experience, was $300 a week. "Fortunately," she said, "it's a dirt-cheap little town."
The reporter said she was stunned to receive a letter from her former employer, informing her she was owed $1,400 in overtime pay for the eight months she worked there.
"This was never about money," she insisted. "It was about making them stop working people so many hours and then expecting them to be thrilled about not getting paid for it."
Republican editor James C. Kevlin III refused to respond to the complaints.
But Martz said the Labor Department was operating under an outmoded, 50-year-old policy in regard to overtime.
"There are professions today that didn't even exist when that law was put into effect," he said. "What was a graphic artist? What was a Web maven?"
As the publisher pointed out, persuasive arguments have been made both for and against classifying journalists as professionals.
In two high-profile cases during the 1980s, the courts determined that certain Washington Post journalists were exempt and that Concord (N.H.) Monitor editorial staffers were entitled to overtime pay.
Republican personnel director Nadine F. Oswald said her paper would not have changed its policy if not for the Labor Department.
"The system we were using is one which many newspapers have used, paying a flat fee based on the nature of extra assignments," she said. "We paid it by a process we felt was right and fair."
Oswald strongly disagreed with the former reporter's assertion that newsroom employees were disgruntled.
"I can't talk for the reporters, but the words 'overworked' and 'underpaid' are like beauty ? they're in the eye of the beholder," she said.
"People are our most important asset, and we've had many wonderful people working here in the past, as well as now," she added. "We considered our reporters as professionals and exempt, and we still do. I hope they don't think of themselves as hourly people and that they continue to think of themselves the way we do, as professionals."
?("There are professions today that didn't even exist when that law was put into effect. What was a graphic artist? What was a Web maven?") [Caption]
?(? Uzal H. Martz Jr., president and publisher, Pottsville Republican) [Photo & Caption]


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