By:
September 30, 2021

Multiple journalists have come forward to share stories about working overtime without pay at Gannett after an editor at The Arizona Republic wrote a tweet implying that the practice was just another way of “gaining experience.”

Current and former reporters at the Republic said that getting overtime approved at the paper is difficult, and the newsroom culture discourages people from asking for it. Similar issues have taken place at other Gannett papers, with some reporters recalling stories that stretch back decades.

In the tweet that started the debate, Arizona Republic consumer protection reporter Rebekah Sanders wrote that she had worked hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime at the paper early in her career because she had been told she needed to “pay (her) dues.”

“It robbed me of sleep, dinners with loved ones & money that I rightfully earned,” she wrote.

In response, Michael Braga, an investigations editor at the paper, wrote, “Every business exploits the young.”

“(I)t’s called gaining experience, and I don’t regret it one bit. If I hadn’t worked hard when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been given more responsibility and more money when I was older,” he tweeted.

What followed were hundreds of tweets from current and former journalists denouncing his comments. Some wrote about their own experiences facing pressure to work long hours without logging them.

Braga later apologized for his tweet: “I should not have suggested that exploiting people’s labor at any age was OK or expected, even as a point of historical reference.”

“I also want to emphasize that my comments were descriptive of a time gone by when I was a younger journalist,” he added. “My comments do not reflect my experience at the Arizona Republic or Gannett.”

But several journalists at The Arizona Republic and other Gannett papers shared instances with Poynter of working uncompensated overtime, as recently as last month. One noted that while working on an investigation with Braga at a different Gannett paper, Braga often expected his reporters to work late into the night.

Braga did not respond to a request for comment.

The NewsGuild, a union that represents journalists at more than 40 Gannett newsrooms, has launched an investigation to determine how widespread the issue of unpaid overtime is at the company. The guild is asking employees working at any of Gannett’s roughly 260 papers to complete a survey on the issue.

In the week following Braga’s initial tweet, Arizona Republic executive editor Greg Burton emailed employees that the company “will never ask, expect or tolerate unpaid overtime.” Those with concerns could anonymously share them with Gannett’s “ethics hotline.”

Gannett spokesperson Lark-Marie Anton wrote in an emailed statement that the company takes formal allegations made by current and former employees seriously and investigates each thoroughly.

“Gannett values all our employees. We strive to provide meaningful opportunities and fair compensation in a very challenging time for our industry and we strongly disagree that there is a culture of exploitation,” Anton wrote. “Quite the contrary, we respect the law and have extensive policies, procedures, and training to ensure compliance with the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) and other workplace laws and regulations.”

She added that the NewsGuild’s campaign to bring attention to the issue is an example of its “agenda to share misinformation as it attempts to organize and expand its membership ranks.”

But Sanders said Gannett needs to do more to ensure that wage laws are actually followed. Currently, she said, the company suffers from a culture where working overtime is a “thing of shame” and employees are expected to work for free.

The Arizona Republic

Though Burton asserted in his email to Arizona Republic employees that the paper is “100% committed to complying with both Arizona law and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act,” current and former employees say the reality is very different.

The culture at the newspaper is such that employees with attentive editors are able to protect their time while those with inconsiderate managers are left to work overtime without pay. In most cases, overtime must be pre-approved by a manager, but getting that approval is difficult. Rarely do editors mention overtime while calling in reporters to work after their shift.

“The only situations where I’ve had that happen has been very, very breaking news situations. So when John McCain died, I was given overtime. When we had a spree shooting, I was given overtime,” said Bree Burkitt, who left the Republic in November 2020. “Now, I can tell you the overtime as a principle was nowhere near the amount of overtime I actually worked.”

Due to the nature of their work, some reporters found they had to work overtime to complete assignments. Megan Taros, the Republic’s South Phoenix reporter, said there were times when she needed an extra 15 or 30 minutes to finish a story at the end of the day. When she tried to file for overtime, previous managers would remind her that she needed prior approval and act as if she had inconvenienced them.

“Getting this reaction that 15 or 30 minutes is going to bankrupt the company really kind of pressures you to just ignore it. Like, ‘Well it’s just 15 minutes. Oh, it’s just 30 minutes.’ But it’s not. It’s time that you worked,” said Taros, who estimated that the last time she worked overtime without pay was in March.

As a public safety and breaking news reporter, Perry Vandell said he would receive calls on the weekends from victims and their families. He felt it was his “obligation as a human being” to take their calls and offer his help.

“I would take these calls, and I wouldn’t report them because even though it was something that you could construe as work, at the time I felt like I wasn’t sure if I could justify it as something where I could just file for overtime without that approval,” he said.

Reporters who do end up working overtime are sometimes told to take comp time and leave their shift early on a different day. But food and dining reporter Priscilla Totiyapungprasert said there are issues with this policy. Reporters don’t get fewer assignments just because their shift ends early. Or, a breaking news situation might come up, prolonging what was supposed to be a short shift.

“If I’m going to take time off the following week for a half hour — or I have to, basically, because I went over my hours — it doesn’t mean I have less work next week or less stories to write next week,” said Totiyapungprasert, who said she worked overtime without pay as recently as last month. “It just means that I have the same amount of work to do in a less amount of time.”

Several reporters said negative responses to their request for overtime discouraged them from asking for it in the future. It was easier to work those extra hours and not risk creating conflict by trying to log them.

The Arizona Republic has occasionally had overtime freezes, Vandell said. Those freezes would happen during times when layoffs were expected, making him hesitant to log overtime work since he didn’t want “a bigger target on (his) back.”

Uriel García, who left his position at the Republic in April 2021, said he was often forced to work overtime while pursuing an investigative project with Burkitt. Both he and Burkitt also had daily stories to write for their normal beats, so they often worked 15-hour days to make time for their investigative reporting. García also took to working Saturdays, teaching himself data skills needed for the project, after a third reporter assigned to the project failed to do their share of the work.

García and Burkitt either took comp time or let those extra hours go unpaid, but at one point, a personal expense came up that compelled García to ask for overtime pay. His request made it up the chain of command to the newsroom director who gave him a “pretty aggressive” response.

“(She) told me, ‘We gave you direct instructions not to do overtime. You’ve put me in an uncomfortable position, where by legally I’m supposed to give you overtime,’” García said.

The director went on to say that she was now “forced” to talk to Burkitt and ask how many hours of overtime Burkitt had worked, according to García. She accused García of “taking advantage” of the paper and said she hoped he wouldn’t do this again.

García decided not to ask for overtime for the project again.

“After that incident, there were still stories to be done on the project, and I continued to work on weekends,” he said. “And I just didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to be chastised again.”

In that instance, both García and Burkitt were eventually paid, though Burkitt noted that the amount she received did not reflect the hours she worked. But in other cases, managers would sometimes criticize reporters for needing overtime in the first place.

“When I did ask and other employees asked, they’d be told, ‘You need to learn to manage your time better,’ that this was a consequence of poor time management on our parts,” Burkitt said.

When asked about individual employees’ experiences with unpaid overtime, Anton wrote that Gannett takes formal allegations “seriously” but did not address specific complaints.

Individual managers are sometimes a determining factor in whether a reporter at the Republic has to work overtime without pay. A better manager will ensure their reporters are paid for their work or given comp time.

“One of the goals here is to make it so that the experience is much more unified across the board where it doesn’t necessarily matter which manager you have but that the company’s policy on these kinds of issues is that all work time is paid, no matter what, and that no employee should ever feel like they can’t be paid for the hours they worked,” Vandell said.

‘A pretty insidious problem’ in journalism

In a letter to the NewsGuild, Gannett CEO Mike Reed acknowledged that Taros, Vandell and Totiyapungprasert had made complaints about work hours during a recent union bargaining session but referred to their remarks as “isolated.” Their experiences, he wrote, “do not reflect widespread intentional misconduct.”

But court documents and the accounts of journalists who have worked at other Gannett newsrooms tell a different story.

Billy Cox, a former features writer for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune who retired in April, wrote in an email that during his time at the paper, working overtime without pay was normal.

“I took work home with me all the time, going back 40 years, without getting compensated,” Cox told Poynter. “It was just what you did.”

Andrew Pantazi, a reporter who worked at the Florida Times-Union and later helped organize the paper’s union, said he often had to work unpaid overtime. Four years ago, he worked with Michael Braga on an investigative project and had to take midnight calls and work late hours. At the time, Braga was the investigations editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Both papers were owned by GateHouse Media and now fall under Gannett due to the November 2019 merger.

“He had expectations that other people should be working the same hours he was (as a salaried editor), which often would mean midnight phone calls and things like that while working on a project, and that sort of expectation does not come with any sort of boundaries,” said Pantazi.

Pantazi did not have approval to work overtime. But when he got those late night calls from Braga — who was not only the editor of the project, but also a Pulitzer Prize-winner — he felt pressured to continue working.

Pantazi said there were other occasions when he had to work overtime. For example, if he got an assignment on a Friday afternoon and asked his editor if he would get overtime for it, the answer was usually no. But he still had to complete the assignment, so he would stay late to finish it.

“That’s happened to me, as it has to journalists across Gannett, many times where you get impossible assignments and when you ask your direct supervisor how to square that peg, they don’t give you an answer,” Pantazi said. “They just tell you you’ve got to cover the story, even though you’re over on time already.”

The issue of unpaid overtime recently landed Gannett in federal court. In 2019, three call center employees sued Gannett, alleging the company had violated state and federal labor laws by making more than 95 employees work off the clock. The employees were expected to log into computer programs and read their emails before clocking in, according to the complaint.

Gannett settled the class-action lawsuit earlier this year by agreeing to pay $650,000. It is estimated that each affected worker will receive roughly $254 in damages. The court approved the settlement last week.

Other former Gannett journalists have shared stories about working overtime without pay on Twitter. The allegations span decades and include newsrooms across the country.

Taros, who has worked as a journalist for over a decade, said unpaid overtime is not a problem unique to Gannett. She has found the issue is particularly pronounced in smaller newsrooms where staff must work longer hours to ensure there are enough stories to fill the paper.

“Overwork in journalism is a pretty insidious problem,” she said. “There’s been so many hours that I lost working for other newsrooms that didn’t offer overtime, and it was so uncomfortable to have to just pretend that you weren’t doing it because you know you can’t ask for it.”

Union efforts

The NewsGuild is trying to make unpaid overtime a union issue. At a recent bargaining meeting between The Arizona Republic Guild and the newspaper, Taros, Vandell and Totiyapungprasert shared their stories about working overtime without pay. All three are currently working with human resources to get back pay.

Though unpaid overtime issues still exist at The Arizona Republic, the presence of the union has empowered some employees to push back on requests to work overtime. García said he stopped working overtime without pay after the newsroom unionized in 2019.

“The union made certain employees empowered to ask for their overtime, and I was one employee who was empowered,” he said. “I know that there were certain employees regardless of the union who were still putting in overtime and not asking for it because they were too scared.”

The Arizona Republic Guild, which is currently negotiating its first contract, has proposed that reporters who work after their shift automatically be paid four hours of overtime. If a reporter works on the weekend, their overtime hours increase to six, no matter how many hours they actually work.

Sanders, who is the chair of the union, said units at other Gannett papers including The Indianapolis Star and Detroit Free Press have similar proposals in their contracts and have been able to protect their employees’ off-time.

“It makes managers think twice about asking you to work when your workday is done, or when you’re on a day off,” Sanders said. “It requires editors to go through a calculation that they don’t go through now, which is, ‘Is this story, or is this question, or is this email that needs to be responded to so important that it has to be done now, or can it wait?’”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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