On Thursday, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill with the headline, “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office.”
Many journalists, including those at the Washingtonian, have been working remotely for the last year because of Covid-19 restrictions that forced newsrooms to close their doors along with other workplaces around the country.
In the piece, Merrill suggested that part of employees’ job is to go to the office and participate in in-person activities such as “mentoring more junior people” and “celebrating someone’s birthday.” She went on to say managers have a “strong incentive” to change an employee’s work status to “contractor” if they do not participate in “those extras.”
“That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation,” Merrill wrote. “Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.”
Merill finished her piece by saying that those who maintained personal relationships with their bosses would have more job security, because “the hardest people to let go are the ones you know.”
The Washington Post on Friday morning changed the headline to the less-theatening “As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work.” The Post’s Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said in a statement to CNN Business that he asked his staff to change the headline and said that “nothing else in the op-ed has been changed.”
But by then, it was too late.
The outrage that ensued prompted the CEO walked back her remarks in a internal memo to staff Friday saying that “flexible with work schedules and time in the office” along with health and 401K benefits will not change. Merrill also said she is not going to switch full time workers to freelancer status, as she alluded to in her op-ed.
“These are critical parts of our culture and also things I deeply, personally believe in,” Merrill said in the memo, which CNN Business has obtained. “I can and will maintain this strategy because we are a small family-owned company and I can. But I do worry about larger less personal businesses and how that may affect our country. That is precisely why I wrote the piece.”
Merrill reiterated some of these sentiments in a statement to CNN Business Friday.
“Washingtonian embraces a culture in which employees are able to express themselves openly,” Merrill said in her statement. “I value each member of our team not only on a professional level but on a personal one as well. I could not be more proud of their work and achievements under the incredibly difficult circumstances of the past year. I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status. I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else.”
‘We will not be publishing today’
The opinion piece sparked backlash online from media observers. HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson tweeted Thursday, “The CEO of @washingtonian media has taken to the op-ed page of the Washington Post to threaten her own employees.”
On Friday morning, Washingtonian staffers tweeted identical statements announcing their decision not to publish for the day.
“As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor. We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today,” the tweets read.
An editorial staff member who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation said Merrill’s op-ed came as a surprise.
“I think our whole staff has been working really, really hard to put out a really great product and I think it was just a slap in the face to see that,” this staffer said. “We’ve done all this hard work and then to see words threatening to take away our full time status and our benefits I think were pretty hard to read.”