New overtime rules could have huge impact on struggling newsrooms

National overtime eligibility changes President Obama announced yesterday could have a massive impact on the budgets and workflow of local newsrooms, and it’s unlikely that newspaper publishers already focused on cutting costs have taken it into account yet.

Beginning in 2016, the threshold for qualifying as an exempt, salaried manager will be annual wages of $50,400, up from the current $23,660. In between lies MANY city editors, sports editors, even managing editors and editors in small newsrooms across the country who average far more than 40 hours a week and work lots of holidays without getting time and a half.

It’s bad timing for any publisher implicitly counting on low-paid managers to pick up the slack after newsroom layoffs.

And stepped-up scrutiny of overtime rules and eligibility carries a great deal of financial risk for newspaper publishers in general. With all of the downsizing that’s happened in recent years, there are many newsrooms with employees who are being paid as exempt managers but don’t manage anyone anymore and probably should be paid hourly. There are reporters submitting time cards that say “9 to 5” or “40 hours” when a cursory review of their work or time in the office will show they’re working overtime and not getting paid for it. And the problem might be worse than ever at newsrooms trying to maintain comparable coverage after the layoffs of the past few years.

If the Department of Labor starts pursuing wage and hour complaints at newsrooms, the consequences for publishers who are looking the other way could be massive. Right before I started as editor of The Register Citizen in Connecticut 12 years ago, then-owner Journal Register Co. was hit with two Department of Labor lawsuits over the course of three years. Reporters and editors were paid tens of thousands of dollars in back wages based on the amount of time they said they worked vs. what they were encouraged to put down on their time cards.

Related: Unpaid internships are also a risky way to pick up the slack.

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5 thoughts on “New overtime rules could have huge impact on struggling newsrooms

  1. This could send newspapers into financial ruin. How many editors at medium to small size newspapers earn $50,400? I remember the Wage and Hour witch hunt in central CT during the late 90’s that was caused solely by the reputation of the company. Reporters and photographers sung like canaries because they weren’t happy with their wages and smelled a windfall. It was documented that one reporter was planning her wedding during an alleged overtime incident she wasn’t compensated for. Although the final settlement was far less than what Wage and Hour attempted to impose, in reality there was very little uncompensated overtime. It was more about bad record keeping, like not documenting lunch periods or reporters forgetting to turn in time cards. After this, we became vigilant about documentation and reporters and editors were calling me at home on weekends asking if I would authorize OT for a breaking news story, which I usually did if it was warranted. A few years later, a reporter contacted Wage and Hour because she was unhappy with an assignment on a Saturday. We were audited again and they couldn’t find any improprieties – not one. I remember this person was scorned by the entire newsroom. On one hand, I don’t blame the editorial folks because they were poorly paid. However, lying and greediness is unacceptable under any circumstances. The Wage and Hour auditors were pure monsters unwilling to listen to reason or logic. If a photographer said there was a week he worked an extra 4 hours and didn’t record it on his time card, the auditor unilaterally decided that EVERYONE in the entire editorial department was working an extra 4 hours x 52 weeks x their time and a half hourly rate.

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  2. Prior to 2003, you were in an executive news position with JRC. In the years prior to 2000, before resigning as a publisher, I recall you had the editorial staff as your first priority, not cutting wages or hours. That sentiment of valuing employees was not prevalent in other quarters of the top floor of the Trenton tower, proving you could then swim against the tide.

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