Washingtonian staff goes on publishing strike after CEO's op-ed about remote work

·5 min read

WASHINGTON - Washingtonian magazine staffers launched a day-long protest on Friday in response to an op-ed written by their boss, who warned that continuing to work from home as the pandemic subsides could make employees less valuable and easier to "let go."

Cathy Merrill, chief executive of the District of Columbia-centered magazine, shared her concerns about the popularity of remote work in a Washington Post op-ed published Thursday, originally titled: "As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office."

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While some employees may want to "work from home and pop in only when necessary" after the pandemic, Merrill argued, the dynamic may create a "strong incentive" for bosses to convert full-time workers into contractors, who get paid by the hour or output and lack benefits such as health-care coverage and retirement accounts.

"Although there might be some pains and anxiety going back into the office, the biggest benefit for workers may be simple job security," she wrote in her conclusion. "Remember something every manager knows: The hardest people to let go are the ones you know."

Washingtonian staffers were shocked. Many perceived the op-ed to be directed in part to them - a veiled threat to their jobs.

The magazine's assistant photo editor, Lauren Bulbin, called the article "truly terrifying."

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"I feel really humiliated," she said. "Every single person I know in my life read that op-ed and contacted me about it," she said. "People I respect in the media industry and beyond came to me and were really shocked that this is where I'm working."

By Friday morning, many of Washingtonian's editorial staff of about 25 pledged that they wouldn't publish anything on the magazine's website or social media channels for the day. More than a dozen tweeted identical messages: "We want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor" and "we are dismayed by Cathy Merrill's public threat to our livelihoods."

Merrill has spent the hours since the op-ed published doing damage control. About 10 minutes before her employees announced their strike on Twitter, she sent them a memo saying she would not change their health-care coverage, retirement plans or status to contractors.

"My intent was to write about how worried I and other CEOs are about preserving the cultures we built up in our offices," she told employees. "But I understand that some of you have read it as threatening."

She echoed that sentiment in a Friday email to The Post. "I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status," Merrill said. "I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else." She added that she was proud of her employees' work during the pandemic and that the company "embraces a culture in which employees are able to express themselves openly."

But the magazine's website remained lifeless as of Friday afternoon; the most recent stories were a day old. Those participating in the work-stoppage include senior editors, top food critics and Web producers.

The action was especially notable because Washingtonian staff have no union, which typically affords employees protection for engaging in collective action such as strikes.

"We felt a little bit of trepidation, but we also understood this was a really public, egregious statement," writer and Web producer Rosa Cartagena said. "We're trying to use our public platforms to respond publicly as well, and to share how disappointed we feel by seemingly not being valued by the owner."

Like many other publications, Washingtonian reverted to remote work during the pandemic last spring. Employees there have been told to begin returning to the office over the next several months, with a hard reopening in the fall.

Staffers at Washingtonian said they were struck by Merrill's argument that remote work makes it harder to give employees feedback and stunts their professional development, especially because the magazine has published some of its most-read online stories during the pandemic, such as food writer Jessica Sidman's exposé on working at the Trump International Hotel restaurant.

Merrill has written several essays for The Washington Post's editorial page, which operates independently from reporters in the newsroom. In March last year, she called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to halt gatherings for several weeks "a death sentence for small businesses."

In Thursday's op-ed, Merrill wrote that she had discussed the downsides of remote work with fellow chief executives and estimated that unofficial office duties such as "helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone's birthday - things that drive office culture" made up 20 percent of their work.

"If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to 'contractor,'" she wrote. "Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics." She added that would also mean not having to pay for health-care coverage, retirement savings, bonuses and parking.

The op-ed attracted national attention on Thursday night as several prominent journalists tweeted criticisms. By midmorning Friday, The Post had changed the headline on the op-ed to "As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work," removing the language that directed the message at Merrill's employees.

Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said he asked the headline to be changed early on Friday, before he knew about the strike, "to something that I thought better captured the piece."

Remote work has been popular throughout the pandemic, according to Gallup. A January poll found that nearly half of those surveyed said they would keep working remotely after restrictions lift simply because they preferred it, and 17 percent would still want to stay out of the office because of coronavirus concerns. Only 39 percent said they would want to return to the office.

Other media organizations plan to begin reopening their offices in the coming months. The Washington Post will bring back a limited number of employees back July 6, with a full return anticipated in the fall. The New York Times headquarters will reopen in September, with bosses exploring a "long-term vision for remote working." CNN doesn't plan a full return until after the summer.

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The Washington Post's Paul Farhi contributed.

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