This reporting appears as one of several scoops featured in this week’s edition of Confider, our media newsletter that pulls back the curtain to reveal what’s really going on inside the world’s most powerful navel-gazing industry. Subscribe here and send your questions, tips, and complaints here.
“The pandemic is not over,” The Washington Post’s editorial board declared late last week over the arrival of the fast-moving BA.5 variant. And yet, internally, Post staffers worry the paper’s management seems to be treating their concerns about COVID-19 as a thing of the past.
A June 22 edict mandating staffers come to the offices three times a week or risk “disciplinary action” has left many frustrated and fearful, according to multiple current and former staffers who spoke with Confider. These sources said the company will monitor office attendance via individual badge-swipe data.
In response to the new policy, the Post’s unionized staffers sent an irate note to the paper’s publisher and top editors, blasting the decree and its enforcement.
“Everyone is scrambling right now,” one reporter told Confider. “They’re trying to reorient their lives” to fit with the paper’s demands, which many believe originated with publisher Fred Ryan and is being enforced by the Post’s HR chief Wayne Connell, who has vigorously defended the policy internally.
The policy is apparently controversial among middle management as well, as one staffer told Confider: “There’s not much desire, at least from national editors, to play truancy officer.”
But the rules have so incensed staffers that on July 7 the PostGuild sent a letter to Ryan and other top brass lamenting “a lack of concern for the ongoing pandemic; an absence of trust in employees; a gross misunderstanding of how employees do their jobs and a willful disregard for the constantly evolving needs of employees.”
The memo, which Confider obtained and reviewed, continued: “Threatening to punish Post employees who have for the last two years exceeded all expectations in the face of unprecedented circumstances signals to workers that producing Pulitzer Prize-winning work, outperforming sales goals, increasing subscriber numbers and boosting retention rates are not enough to earn the trust, empathy and support of their own.”
According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation, the newspaper’s Guild Slack channel in recent weeks has seen staffers hunting for child care and swapping ideas on how to carpool to work, especially when gas prices were at record high levels.
“‘This is making our lives 10 times harder, and making our job 10 times riskier,’” one current staffer described the sentiment within the Guild. “It’s just adding in all of these risks that, frankly, none of us are being compensated for.”
The PostGuild elaborated in a statement to Confider: “Many members of the Guild believe The Post’s stance on mandatory in-office work is at odds with our coverage on COVID-19. Doubling down on a forced return to the office as new details of the BA.5 variant emerge is short-sighted and we urge the company to embrace flexible remote work options, rather than be forced to amend the policy once again during a possible wave of cases in fall and winter… The Guild will fight the company’s rigid and unrealistic policy in bargaining, and our full contract proposal includes an aggressive overhaul of The Post's remote work policies that will lead to more attractive, modern and flexible work practices for a wide range of life circumstances.”
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When reached for comment, a Post spokesperson wrote to Confider: “We always work to prioritize employee safety in any decision regarding the office. We have taken a number of precautions, including requiring vaccination and weekly testing, adding air filters and following local guidance on masking.”
The paper also made clear that it “first informed employees that they would be required to come into the office at least three days a week back in May 2021. We moved the office return date several times in response to pandemic conditions, and set the March 15 date this past January. We are now ensuring this is being enforced evenly across the company.”
Indeed, the paper and its publisher have long made clear that a return was forthcoming, despite the delays from the Delta and Omicron variants. These setbacks led to an haphazard situation for employees who sought to remain remote long-term: Some staffers were asked to fill out memos explaining their need to work remotely with no guarantee of approval and no explanation if their request was rejected.
According to two current staffers, labor reporter Eli Rosenberg—who had moved to California, far from the paper’s headquarters on K Street in D.C.—resigned in March over his fight to stay remote before it could escalate to disciplinary action. He now covers the same beat remotely for NBC News. Rosenberg declined to comment.
And now the June edict has resulted in other staffers eyeing the exit. One current employee told Confider that they began looking for jobs the same day the policy memo was sent, believing they could do their best work remotely. “If you’re in a newsroom the whole day, you’re not getting the news that’s happening on the ground,” this staffer said.
Still, the irony seems not to be lost on the paper. A photo shared in the Post’s Guild Slack channel last week showed a television screen inside the building’s elevator that features images and articles from the newspaper.
The staffer who posted the image circled one headline in particular: “Workers who thrive remotely fear a rigid return to the office.”
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