Deez Interviews: Matt Pearce, on everything you wanna know about work sharing

This week’s interview is with the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce, again.

I interviewed Matt last year about his role helping to organize the LA Times Guild, but in light of all the layoffs/furloughs recently and the union’s pioneering work share program — an idea that originated with Matt himself — a follow up Q&a felt right. Hope it’s helpful! 

So the LA Times Guild has been around since 2018, and you guys got your first newsroom contract last October. What aspects of that contract set the guild up in a position to make this work share program possible? 

Our contract bans pay cuts and furloughs, so the company's only mechanism for unilaterally cutting costs is to lay people off in seniority order (last in, first out). That makes layoffs really scary if you're a newer employee. But it also makes layoffs scary for management too, because their newest hires usually have the skill sets they need to pursue the company's latest business strategy. So the union and management have strong incentives to come to the table and bargain over a less painful alternative to layoffs, which is what happened at the L.A. Times.

What was the process like for coming up with this idea within the guild and then taking it to management? How long did it take to reach an agreement? 

I discovered the work-sharing program while reporting a story on how the CARES Act had dumped a bunch of stimulus money into the unemployment system. Management had just told us they needed to cut $2 million from our newsroom , and I was scrolling on my phone in bed late one night, reading some corporate lawyer blog that casually mentioned that Congress and the Trump administration had made work-sharing programs eligible for the $600 weekly stimulus — and I snapped wide awake and was like, holy shit. 

People could have their weekly hours reduced as little as 10% under a work-sharing program, get their lost wages offset by the federal stimulus, while letting management reach its budget target. The journalism industry doesn't have to have these pointlessly brutal layoffs that devastate people's careers. There's another way.

But it seemed like nobody knew work-sharing was even an option; manufacturers often use the program, but newsrooms don't. They're really poorly advertised in the U.S. I gave my reporting notes to a coworker and withdrew myself from the story for ethical reasons, because I was starting to work on this issue in my capacity as a union officer whose job is to protect the newsroom.

More than 270 L.A. Times journalists showed up to this extraordinary guild meeting we held on Zoom about a work-sharing proposal to cut hours 20% to hit management's target. People had some tough questions, because despite repeated mass layoffs in our industry, none of us had ever really tried something like this before. But all the alternatives were going to be far more painful, so ultimately we voted 96% to 4% in favor of a work-sharing proposal. I was doing all this from my kitchen table.

When we pitched management on the work-sharing idea, they were on board almost immediately. I want to give credit to our president/COO Chris Argentieri in particular, because he was down to try something experimental at a moment when a lot of other management teams in our industry have been afraid to color outside the lines. That's no small thing. Thirty years from now, people are gonna look back and remember that their union fought for them but also that their company did the right thing during one of the biggest economic disasters in American history. If you're a manager and you're reading this, it's not too late!

This may be a dumb question, but does work sharing actually work when journalism is kind of notoriously not an hourly, 9-to-5 kind of occupation?

That's been the hardest part so far. We're all so conditioned to being available all the time, always having Slack on, emailing and texting at crazy hours. It's a big adjustment to go to a shift system where our hours are spread out across the week to make sure the newsroom's gaps are covered, and then to really log off when we log off. It could be unemployment fraud if you fuck around with the rules and don't respect the system. I have been deadly serious about this with people. We will do whatever it takes to stop layoffs. 

But I would not be surprised if some people actually thrive under a shorter workweek. There are a bunch of studies showing that people are actually more productive when they shift to shorter hours; Americans are so burned out and unfocused for much of their workweeks and they don't even realize it. We'll see.

It’s only been two weeks, but what is everyone doing with their extra day? Is it weird to treat it like extra weekend, or have people been using it for other projects/freelancing? (Is that even allowed?)

One of the benefits of work-sharing is that it gives you more time for side gigs if you have them, though the catch is that outside income can make you ineligible for the stimulus just as a matter of unemployment law. Somebody is thinking about writing a crime novel. A bunch of us are going on hikes. I spent my first furlough day doing a bunch more research on work-sharing programs across the U.S. and talking to other guilds about the L.A. Times program, because now there are a bunch of other newsrooms that would also like to try it out to avoid layoffs. It's been a really fulfilling use of time.

Finally, do you think there's any chance work sharing programs during the current pandemic are feasible for outlets that aren't unionized (or that aren't located in states that have this kind of program that delivers the unemployment insurance?)?

You don't have to be in a union to have a work-sharing program; it's just that unions have had the most clout to push for enrollment and to normalize the idea as something rational and attainable for our industry.

My hope is that as more unionized newsrooms come on board, it'll have a halo effect on non-union media companies that will inevitably want to do what their peers are doing. Our non-union sister paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, is now implementing a work-sharing program after we did it. I'll take it.

But almost half of U.S. states still don't have work-sharing programs on the books, despite pushes by economists and Congress to boost enrollment in these programs. That might change if the unemployment crisis lasts much longer. You want to know the last time work-sharing was really, really common in workplaces across the U.S.? It was the Great Depression.

Don’t forget to follow @mattdpearce on Twitter!

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