What journalists should know before taking a buyout
For instance, The New York Times announced it was requesting 100 voluntary buyouts last year and the Chicago Sun-Times announced earlier this month it plans to cut 22 percent of newsroom staff through buyouts and layoffs.
Experts say there are things journalists should consider before signing a buyout or severance agreement with their newsroom employers.
“The most important thing is to be aware of what rights [and/or claims] you’re releasing and what you’re not releasing,” said Katherine Blostein, a partner with Outten & Golden, a New York based law firm that represents employees.
She said it’s important to understand what obligations former employees still owe to the company, such as confidentiality or non-compete agreements. Blostein also said not to rule out legal counsel and consider pro bono assistance or lawyers who have a low hourly fee structure. The National Employment Lawyers Association’s referral service, among others, matches lawyers with prospective clients, she said.
Tim Schick, the administrative director for the Newspaper Guild-CWA, said signing a separation agreement could also impact any pending workers compensation claims, Americans with Disabilities Act or discrimination claims a person might have.
“Basically you waive your rights under those laws in exchange for getting money,” Schick said. “Once in awhile you have someone who has a good claim that has potential to get more money by pursuing the claim than what they get in a separation agreement.”
He also said before signing anything it’s important to calculate accrued vacation time or other money owed and make sure those funds are included in the agreement. Another thing people should consider is how are they going to handle any retirement money they have. Quite often people will dip into their account and face a large tax penalty, Schick said.
Mary Cavallaro, chief broadcast officer with the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which also represents news broadcasters, said before signing a severance agreement it’s important to note how it’s paid out. Severance pay can be in one lump sum or paid out overtime. However, severance agreement clauses sometimes say the payments could stop if the former employee gets a new job, she said.
Non-disparagement clauses in separation agreements are also tricky.
“Quite often non-disparagement agreements are drafted very generally, very broadly and very sloppily,” Schick said. “It’s one thing for the employer to say ‘take this money’ but they’re usually not giving so much money that you have a huge incentive to keep quiet, so time limits are something to look at.”
An anecdote often told after lay-offs is how employees didn’t have time to save files, notes or contacts. Cavallaro said employers will take the position that they own anything created during employment including notes and other work product. She said for broadcast journalists this is important as they need products for their reels for their next job.
“In some agreements we recommend you negotiate to take that material with you,” Cavallaro said. “Now that we’ve gotten away from tape or dvd everything is on a server in some places and people don’t think to make a copy. If you get terminated the asking usually comes when you’re surprised by it and haven’t prepared.”