May 26, 2022

As far as BuzzFeed News Union chair Addy Baird knows, none of the BuzzFeed offices are haunted.

The New York office did once suffer an infestation of bedbugs, which Baird said could be considered “ghostly, little creatures.” But the offices are not haunted — aside from, perhaps, “the ghost of Ben Smith,” a BuzzFeed spokesperson said.

If a ghost does move in and create unsafe work conditions, BuzzFeed News staff will have the right not to work at that location, thanks to protections listed in their first union contract, which they ratified on May 6. It’s the first contract in labor history to classify ghosts as a workplace hazard, according to NewsGuild counsel Benjamin Dictor.

Other potential workplace hazards listed in the contract include storms, floods, fires, earthquakes, explosions, public health emergencies, “release of toxic substances,” riots and more. While the union didn’t have much trouble getting protection from ghosts included in their contract — “Management thought it was quite funny,” Baird said — securing the rest of their health and safety proposal took more effort.

Those negotiations took place in summer 2020 at a time when reporters faced violence from police while covering Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19 made working in person unsafe. The union wanted to ensure that employees had the right to turn down dangerous assignments and work remotely if they did not feel safe in the office.

But when the staffers submitted their original proposal detailing potential hazardous conditions (sans ghosts), they faced ridicule from BuzzFeed management and legal, who accused them of trying to get out of work, according to Baird. (A BuzzFeed spokesperson denied this allegation, calling it “wholly, factually inaccurate.”)

“We were kind of annoyed with them making fun of us for these really realistic and important things, and we wanted to hold on this language because we felt it was important,” Baird said. “We figured we would just sort of test them to see if they were really actually thinking about the specifics of each of these things and the realities of each of these things.”

So they slipped the word “ghosts” into the list of hazardous circumstances. When BuzzFeed’s lawyer noticed, everyone burst into laughter, and both sides agreed to just leave it in there, Baird said.

Ultimately, management agreed to the entire list after adding in a sentence about how the right not to work in a certain location didn’t relieve employees from their obligation to work.

While the inclusion of ghosts was a joke, Baird said it was important that the union include in its contract protections that might seem “ridiculous on paper.” They needed to account for worst-case scenarios like layoffs despite BuzzFeed’s insistence that the staff trust that the company had the newsroom’s best interests at heart.

That need became especially apparent when BuzzFeed announced in March after an earnings call that it would make cuts to its Pulitzer Prize-winning News team to increase profitability. Those cuts — which affect the investigations, politics, science and inequality desks — contradict years of messaging that the union had gotten from management about the future of the newsroom.

“That’s why it was important to us to have these things in writing and to really have a contract that doesn’t just say we will let management do whatever they want to do,” said Baird, a political reporter who will be taking a buyout this summer. “Because even the best times at BuzzFeed can be, of course, we all know too well, followed by just devastating losses.”

“The ghosts, I think, are kind of a perfect metaphor for the value of getting some of these things down.”

The union was able to negotiate buyouts for staff on the affected teams. Also present in the contract is a $60,000 salary floor with 2.5% increases per year, caps on health care price increases, protections against discipline or termination without “just cause” and a ban on the use of nondisclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment or discrimination.

The protection against ghosts is definitely the funniest quirk to their contract, Baird said. But it’s also a reminder that contracts can be whatever workers want them to be.

“There are a lot of fantastic NewsGuild contracts out there to look at for reference and help you decide what you want to put into your contract. And there are some things, of course, that every contract needs,” Baird said. “But ultimately, this process is one where you can make it your own, and you can put anything you want on the table.”

“There is nothing stopping you from asking to not go into a haunted office.”

Here’s the exact language of the “ghosts” proposal:

An employee will not be required to work from any specific location if (1) working from that location is not possible or highly impractical, or (2) working from or traveling to or from that location is unsafe because of a hazardous condition created by natural phenomena or by human acts, including by way of example but not limited to, storm, flood, fire, ghosts, wildfire, earthquake, explosion, blizzard, public health emergency, release of toxic substances into the environment, riot or other civil disturbance or military or police operations, or any declared state of emergency (collectively, “Hazardous Circumstances”). It is understood that the right not to work from a specific location shall not, on its own, relieve an employee from their obligation to work.

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

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