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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Judge Rules O Must Pay Benefits To Former Employees

Posted by Matt Davis on Tue, Jan 6, 2009 at 1:26 PM

As you can imagine, it's rather exciting slash stressful, writing the Mercury's news section single-handed on a Tuesday, but I did want to take a few moments to post a press release from Rebecca Tweed, who handles media relations for law firm Lindsay Hart Neil + Weigler...

Portland, Ore-United States District Judge Michael Hogan ruled in mid-November of 2008 that The Oregonian must compensate former correspondents for ERISA benefits, regardless of their insistence that the writers were not employees with the paper. This is only one of 18 claims currently being brought against the newspaper powerhouse for similar instances. Elizabeth Barnard was a regional correspondent for The Oregonian at various times over a period of six years, covering parts of Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties. During that time, she was told she would not eligible for any of The Oregonian's benefits packages because she was associated by contract.

However, when Barnard filed for unemployment in May of 2005 after The Oregonian had terminated their contract, she learned The Oregonian had been paying unemployment taxes on her behalf. The state and later the IRS determined Barnard as an Oregonian employee. These determinations were part of the evidence before the judge when he made his decision in Ms. Barnard's favor.

"The Oregonian treated my client like she was an employee, but they wanted to find a way out of having to pay her like one," says attorney for the plaintiff, Glen McClendon. "They need to be held accountable for their actions and be made responsible to make this right."

The Oregonian's Director of Human Resources, Thomas Whitehouse, denied Barnard's requests for benefits numerous times, citing the contract with Barnard clearly stated because she was an independent contractor, she would not be eligible for employee benefits.

Judge Hogan's decision says The Oregonian's treatment of Barnard was consistent with the common law definition of "employee"-maintaining ownership of written pieces, discretion in content, work time requirements, reimbursement for travel and expenses, and so on.

"If The Oregonian wants their writers to act independently, then it should allow their writers to work independently, but it's clear that they want ownership over their time and material," says McClendon. "We're thankful these clients will be getting the respect and the compensation they deserve for their hard work."

There are 17 other claims being reviewed by the court right now. According to the attorneys for the plaintiffs the compensation for benefits could range anywhere from $30,000 to $400,000, depending on how long the correspondents worked for The Oregonian. The rulings on other cases are expected in early 2009.

The release appears timed to put pressure on the O to settle the other suits. But it's an interesting insight into the legal troubles one can get into while trying to run a newspaper.

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