To some past Santa Barbara News-Press employees who are owed money for labor violations, the Ampersand Publishing bankruptcy filing feels like a ploy to avoid paying.
A National Labor Relations Board case has stretched on more than 15 years. News-Press owner Wendy McCaw’s company was found liable and ordered to pay employees $2.2 million, but the payments haven’t been made.
About 25 employees are listed among the hundreds of creditors in the Chapter 7 bankruptcy documents filed last week by Ampersand Publishing, parent company of the News-Press.
“We’ve been told they’re still trying to make Wendy pay up at least what she owes all of her former employees and whatever employees were left, so we’ll see what happens,” former News-Press sports editor and columnist Mark Patton told Noozhawk.
“It would be kind of the ultimate insult if this bankruptcy goes through in a building she owns, and she says she does not have enough to pay employees. It’s kind of a sick irony.”
The NLRB ordered the newspaper company to pay Teamsters Union employees for losses from discontinued merit pay raises and using non-union workers at the company, and backpay to Dennis Moran and Richard Mineards who were unfairly fired.
In 2020, the NLRB ordered Ampersand Publishing to pay employees a total of $2.2 million, plus interest. That amount was upheld in court last year after McCaw appealed it.
The updated total is $3.46 million, and growing, said Kayle Blado, a NLRB spokesperson. This doesn’t include attorneys’ fees the NLRB ordered Ampersand Publishing to pay.
Bankruptcy Filing Not Surprising to Longtime News-Pressers
Patton worked at the News-Press from 1977 until his retirement in 2021.
He saw this bankruptcy coming years ago.
“It wasn’t like all of a sudden a house of cards collapsed; more like one card after another over a long period of time.”
Patton recounted vendors that weren’t paid and broken toilets that had out-of-order signs on the stalls for months.
The parking lot in front of the city landmark 715 Anacapa St. building was full of potholes until it got repaved and rented out for parking recently.
“You could tell they just weren’t taking care of the building at all,” he said.
Patton followed in his father’s footsteps – Phil Patton joined the News-Press as sports editor in 1954, when Mark was two weeks old.
“I always kind of felt I was born at the News-Press and I thought I would die at the News-Press, and the News-Press died before me,” he said with a wry chuckle.
“It was pretty much brain dead several years before that,” he added.
Ampersand Publishing owes Patton $52,118, plus interest, for the NLRB case.
Nora Wallace worked at the News-Press for more than 24 years and had no pay increases for at least eight years, she said.
The NLRB case ordered the company to pay her $64,504, which “was at least some recognition of the work that I had done,” she told Noozhawk.
When McCaw bought the paper from The New York Times Co., employees lost their link to the NYT pension plan, Wallace added.
“So for me, that money would be akin to a retirement plan, or help to send my son to college. Yet here it is, 2023, and there’s no payment.”
McCaw transferred the News-Press’ buildings to other LLCs she controls in 2014. That includes the historic newsroom building at 715 Anacapa St., the parking lot across the street, and the Goleta printing facility at 725 S. Kellogg Ave.
That means the properties are not listed as assets in the bankruptcy case. Assets include furniture and equipment inside the buildings, and the newspaper’s archives.
“She has purposefully hidden her assets in an attempt to dodge the law. That is obvious to anyone following this saga,” Wallace said. “She has destroyed lives and livelihoods. And now, with bankruptcy, she has cheated people out of their final paychecks, including a handful who have been there for 20, 30, 40 years. It is shameful.”
The bankruptcy “is not a big surprise,” Moran said, adding that it does make his $216,174 in backpay more uncertain.
“The tragedy is that Santa Barbara lost a great newspaper, and some great journalists who worked there up to 40 years were fired,” he said.
Moran explained that the jobs he had after being fired from the News-Press paid less money, and the backpay calculation included the difference in pay for all those years.
He worked at the News-Press for three years and was fired in 2008 “on trumped-up charges,” he said.
Moran was on the union negotiating team and recalled that the main leaders of that effort “had been fired well before me.”
He added, “I think in Ampersand’s eyes I was one of the last cogs standing.”
The News-Press was ordered to reinstate Moran in 2017, which he accepted, and he also rejoined the union negotiating team.
With no raises and employees paying a bigger share for healthcare insurance, “it was a de facto pay cut from 2008,” Moran said.
“Santa Barbara housing costs had meanwhile increased, of course. I was taking a beating, and I helped make the point in negotiating sessions that they couldn’t expect to draw experienced journalists with that financial situation.
“Their attorney said Ampersand couldn’t afford to budge. So I left after 18 months, in December 2018, voluntarily this time, because I was losing too much money staying,” he said.
Patton shared a kind of survivor’s guilt for staying at the News-Press until he retired two years ago.
“I have many, many close friends who were fired or laid off or quit because of mistreatment,” he said.
But he had four kids, including two in college, when the Santa Barbara News-Press “meltdown” started in 2006. “Financially I just couldn’t leave,” he said.
Now he’s glad he at least left when he did.
“If I waited too long to leave, I would have been left hanging in the wind.”
Moran and Patton are both contributing sports writers for Noozhawk.
Memories of Better Years in the Newsroom
Marilyn McMahon, 94, first started working at the News-Press in 1959 as a part-time employee and then was hired in 1977.
She called the 15 years that the New York Times owned the newspaper the “halcyon years.”
McMahon was the last employee standing. The only one who was employed by the New York Times, up until the newspaper filed for bankruptcy.
She is owed about $68,000, she said, because she never had employee evaluations and therefore didn’t get pay increases over the years.
She wrote more than 6,000 articles in her career.
McMahon said she enjoyed the camaraderie of the newsroom, and worked in the office up until the COVID-19 pandemic.
Karna Hughes, a former staff writer hired in 2004, said she believed at the time that she had landed her “dream job.”
She recalled the first time she entered the newspaper’s library.
“It was filled with large bound books of newspapers dating back to the 1800s,” Hughes said.
“Flipping through those old broadsheets gave me a visceral sense that working at a local paper was a long-running relay race: We were the current generation of reporters entrusted with chronicling this day, this week, this decade.”
But a few years later, she said, the situation devolved into a nightmare. She was on the union bargaining committee and worried that every day could be her last.
“Nonetheless, for seven and a half years, it was an honor to report on the community, dig into its history and interview luminaries, from the late Anthony Bourdain to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors,” Hughes said.
She doesn’t believe that she will ever see the $34,000 that she is owed.
Regarding the bankruptcy, Hughes said it is a tragedy that could have been averted.
“It’s a betrayal of the community, as well as the hard-working publishers and journalists who were stewards of the paper for generations,” Hughes said. “Not to mention the dedicated journalists and longtime staff who continued to be in her employ up to the very last day.
“No one has ever gone into journalism to get rich, and to pull the rug out from her last crew seems like the ultimate betrayal.”
Why This Labor Case is Taking So Long to Get Settled
Most of the labor-related legal cases against Ampersand Publishing have been settled, but this NLRB case has taken more than a decade.
As attorney Ira Gottlieb explains, the “elaborate and slow” NLRB process has two phases: one establishing liability for unfair labor practices (or not) and one to decide how much money has to be paid for the violations.
“Most employers would just pay after being held liable, rather than pay their lawyers to keep on fighting. Not Ampersand,” said Gottlieb, who represents the Teamsters Union in the NLRB case.
“I’m confident that Ms. McCaw herself could make good on the debt if she wanted to,” Gottlieb said.
Judges determined that Ampersand Publishing committed unfair labor practices in 2009 or earlier, but the newsroom union didn’t get a final liability ruling until 2017, Gottlieb said.
Ampersand Publishing also faces a class-action lawsuit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court filed by home delivery newspaper carriers.
The 2019 case alleges the company failed to compensate them for all their hours worked, failed to compensate for overtime, and failed to compensate for missed meal periods and rest periods.
An attorney for McCaw filed a response denying the allegations.
McCaw’s bankruptcy attorney, Anthony Friedman, filed a stay of proceedings in late July in response to the Chapter 7 filing.
Jerry Roberts, the former executive editor of the News-Press who resigned in 2006 over ethical concerns, was involved in his own litigation battle with Ampersand Publishing.
After a state court in early 2012 rejected the company’s final, failed appeal of the arbitrator’s award of nearly $1 million to Roberts, he was forced to hire another lawyer, known as a collection attorney, to get his money.
Using sheriff’s liens and other legal stratagems, he received what he was owed in October 2012.
“In my opinion, the bankruptcy punctuates a sad, shameful and wanton failure of stewardship of one of Santa Barbara’s most important and historic institutions,” Roberts said.
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