On Thursday afternoon, Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill published a column in The Washington Post’s opinion section lamenting the growth of telecommuting during the pandemic. The piece bore an ominous headline (which was later changed): “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to the office.”
Merrill wrote that if workers are reluctant to return to the office in person, she and other executives would be tempted to change their status from “employee” to “contractor,” thereby altering their pay structure and eliminating basic benefits like health care and retirement savings.
She said remote employees miss out on “extra” work she considered essential, like “celebrating someone’s birthday,” and she acknowledged it would be tempting to lay off employees who wish to work from home: “Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”
Merrill’s employees responded Friday morning with a show of solidarity, refusing to post any content for the day:
Like workers all over the country, Washingtonian staffers have labored through an exhausting and unprecedented year, and are now pondering the implications of returning to the office during a pandemic that seems under control but not over. Andrew Beaujon, senior editor at the magazine, said he and his colleagues were stunned by their CEO’s essay.
“I think people felt like it was a kick in the teeth,” Beaujon told HuffPost. “We have a small staff. We have been working like hell to put out a monthly magazine and a daily website. To read that we’re going to be turned into independent contractors or laid off if we’re not at a birthday party, that’s really just very disappointing.”
(Disclosure: This reporter is friends with Beaujon.)
“To read this, which really did come across as a threat to our jobs and our benefits, really felt like it was out of left field,” said another staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for self-evident reasons.
On Friday morning, Merrill sent a note to staff trying to explain the rationale behind the piece, and saying she was sorry if it came across as threatening.
“It’s not a public apology. And it was a public threat. A public shaming.
In a statement on the response to her piece, Merrill said she wanted to make clear that there would be “no changes to benefits or employment status.” She told HuffPost that she did not write the original headline and expressed to the Post that she believed it was “inaccurate.” (The Post’s new headline was more innocuous: “As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work.”)
“I value each member of our team not only on a professional level but on a personal one as well,” she told HuffPost. “I could not be more proud of their work and achievements under the incredibly difficult circumstances of the past year.”
But another staffer said both Merrill’s email to staff and her statement failed to shore up the damage she had done.
“It’s not a public apology,” this staffer said. “And it was a public threat. A public shaming.”
Staffers at the magazine are carrying out the one-day work stoppage despite the fact that they are not represented by a union. A former editorial fellow at Washingtonian, Kalina Newman, said on Twitter that Merrill told her in their very first exchange that she “hates unions.” Newman, now a staffer at the AFL-CIO labor federation, told HuffPost that “to have a boss blatantly threaten to misclassify them is an act of astonishing disrespect.”
During the economic downturn last year, Washingtonian staffers were furloughed for two weeks. One employee said several applied for unemployment benefits to make up for the lost wages, though they viewed the sacrifice as reasonable considering the circumstances. Staffers said that in June 2020, Merrill put a hold on using vacation days throughout the remainder of the year, though she gave them a week off around the holidays.
“I wasn’t taking vacations anyway, so I never had to test it,” said one employee.
Meanwhile, staffers continued to publish a monthly magazine and feed a lively website. They covered the momentous D.C. stories of the past year, from the protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing to the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, and did so at a time when outdoor transmission of coronavirus was a much greater concern.
A February story by food writer Jessica Sidman about serving members of the previous administration at D.C.’s Trump International Hotel has become the site’s highest-trafficked story ever.
“I think we’ve done the best we can under tough circumstances,” Beaujon said. “Everybody wants to get back to work together.”
Beaujon said when they return to on-site work, they will be entering an office they have never worked in before, a fact not mentioned in Merrill’s piece. They wonder how well ventilated it will be. They wonder if they will be able to work hybrid schedules, mixing office days with work-from-home days. “I guess the answer to this is ‘no,’” he said.
While staffers have discussed these issues amongst themselves and their managers, they did not know where Merrill stood until reading her position in the Post.
They did get some clues earlier, however, when Merrill published a different op-ed last March, at the start of the pandemic, bemoaning government coronavirus restrictions. She called a two-month hiatus on gatherings “a death sentence” for small businesses like hers. (In a very different take on remote gatherings, Merrill later wrote a post for Washingtonian in which she extolled the benefits of Zoom funerals.)
In her Friday note to employees, Merrill said she was trying to explain how much she values their office culture. While everyone has a different tolerance for remote work, one Washingtonian staffer told HuffPost that she felt the last year has brought her closer to the people she works with. Because of the unique work-life challenges of the pandemic, she’s learned new things about her coworkers and checks in on them in a way she never did before.
In that regard, her pandemic work experience seemed very different from the one Merrill portrayed.
“It’s given us a lot more empathy for each other,” she said.