Two of the three staffers who walked out of Portland gay and lesbian newspaper Just Out last March are still unable to collect unemployment checks.
While they allege that paychecks were spotty or nonexistent for six months, the state's department of employment has so far ruled that only former news editor Jaymee Cuti quit with just cause. The other two ex-staffers, former arts and culture editor Jim Radosta and former art director Blake Martinez, are appealing the state's denial of unemployment - a decision which seems to have occurred because their version of events differs from that of Just Out publisher and editor Marty Davis.
The employees' side of the story is clearly spelled out in a complaint Cuti filed with the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) days after she quit the newspaper. Unlike Martinez and Radosta, Cuti consulted with two lawyers before walking out and filed the official complaint to document her reasons for quitting. In the claim, which is public record, Cuti alleges six months of sporadic paychecks and a hostile work environment. Cuti also claims that on several occasions, Davis illegally told employees not to file complaints with BOLI for unpaid wages and threatened to fire any staffer who discussed absent paychecks with anyone outside the paper. In a staff meeting on March 2nd, the complaint says, "Davis discussed the expose-style article about Just Out on the Gay Rights Watch blog. She said she was going to have to 'kill someone out there' and that if the leak came from inside the office, she'd 'kill someone in here.'"
Radosta and Martinez have appeal hearings this week and next week with administrative judges, who hear both the employer and employees' stories before deciding whether the employee can receive unemployment. If an employee quits without cause, they cannot receive unemployment. That is what happened to Radosta and Martinez when they initially applied for unemployment. Unemployment office spokesman Craig Spivey explains the process: "When an unemployment claim is filed, an adjudicator always calls the employer and if there's any discrepancy between what the claimant has written and what the employer says, the adjudicator makes a decision about whether to award unemployment."
"I denied no one's unemployment," says Davis. "It's not my call, the employer does not have a say in that." What the denied unemployment claims likely show, however, is that there are some discrepancies in the stories Davis and the ex-employees are telling about the walk out.
More on the story, plus Cuti's entire BOLI claim, below the cut.
Cuti's complaint also says that Davis abolished paydays, instead promising to pay staffers "when the money comes in."
"In the end we were walking around like zombies, wondering why we were working at this place where we weren't getting paid. I felt very foolish," says Cuti, who says during her last six months she occasionally received $200 or $400 under the table. "I left my job because I knew that unemployment checks are more reliable than checks from Just Out."
When reached for comment, Davis stated that Cuti's claim had been dismissed. The claim was not dismissed, however. After working with Just Out's lawyer and receiving her $3,837 in unpaid wages, Cuti reported the complaint "resolved."
"Ms. Cuti stopped the process regarding her BOLI complaint and all matters between Ms. Cuti and Just Out were resolved amicably," says Just Out's lawyer, Lake Perriguey. Davis contests Cuti's version of events. The publisher says she never told staffers not to file BOLI complaints and also dismisses the quote about having to "kill someone" over the media leak. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. I have absolutely no recollection of that and I cannot recall for a moment why I would say anything like that," says Davis.
As for the unpaid wages, Davis acknowledges that information came out two months ago. "I'm a newspaper trying to sell ads during a recession," she notes, simply.
This is Cuti's BOLI complaint against Just Out, which spells out the just cause for her walk-out. I removed sections naming other Just Out staffers, because I do not want to publish their salary information and employment decisions without checking with them first.
Dear BOLI Officer:
I am filing a claim against my employer, Just Out publisher Marty Davis, and quitting my job at the end of today. I hope to prove that I am quitting with cause because of late, irregular and unpaid wages; a hostile work environment; and no hope that those factors will change.
The Just Out staff, myself included, started getting paid late and irregularly in September 2008. The hostile work environment began long before but became intolerable when my pay checks were no longer were dependable.
Davis and I met privately at 3 p.m. 3/10 to discuss my past due pay checks for 2009. We calculated that I am owed for past due wages in the amount of $1,492 gross, not counting the upcoming full-time, 80-hour paycheck due 3/13. For the paycheck due 3/13, I am owed my full salary, $1,675 gross, for the pay period ending 3/6. My last day at Just Out is 3/12. For this week, I am owed $670 gross, based on four full, eight-hour days of work. In my resignation letter (enclosed), taped to Davis' door 3/13, I state that I am owed a total of $3,837.
In that private meeting on 3/10, Davis told me I was well paid and that she could get someone else to do my job for $15/hour.
She said she does not have the support of the staff on late payrolls and someone on staff might be filing a BOLI report, making it more difficult for her to pay us.
She reiterated that I am not to discuss our late pay or personnel problems outside of the office or on Facebook (I told a source that I could not attend a luncheon because we are short staffed). She said no one is giving her credit for trying to pay us and that it would be a lot easier if she closed the business.
She also said that "paydays" are discontinued since we don't get paid anymore on payday. Instead, she said she will just calculate pay periods every two weeks, ending the day the paper comes out, and pay us when money comes in.
Immediately following our meeting, I sent Marty a letter in writing, asking for the money I am owed (enclosed). Please apply penalty pay if applicable.
At several prior staff meetings, Davis has... discouraged her staff from filing BOLI reports. She said that those who have, no longer work at Just Out and that if we do, we'll make it harder for the staff to get paid.
In several staff meetings in 2009, in the presence of those mentioned above, Davis has told us to quit and find other jobs if we cannot handle the stressful office environment and late and irregular pay checks. She said because of the bad economy, she cannot guarantee that we will be paid in a timely and regular fashion.
In a staff meeting in February 2008, Marty read excerpts from a staff member's BOLI report in [the staff member]'s presence. [The staff member] left the paper within weeks because she claims she was mistreated by Davis after filing the BOLI report.
[An advertising scheduler] was fired from Just Out 3/4/08 because Davis suspected that he filed a BOLI complaint and was seeking legal counsel against her.
In a staff meeting on 3/6, Davis said she was vulnerable to the staff filing BOLI reports. In that same meeting, Davis talked about $7,500 check that [an ad rep] brought in, and said that with no health care or print bill due, every penny brought in next week would go to catching up on late payroll. On 3/9, Davis wrote in an e-mail (enclosed), "This will help me catch up on nagging items like the phone, which will now keep ringing, and the rent, so now we have a roof for awhile longer."
At a staff meeting on 3/11, where she discussed the need to replace [the art director], Davis said she is also paying checks to freelancer writers this week, so less money will be available for staff payroll. This went back on her promise 3/6 that every penny brought in would go to staff payroll, further convincing me that staff paychecks are a last priority.
Davis is very worried about leaks to the press about paying the staff late. She has said on numerous occasions in front of staff members that we are not to speak with the media. If we do, it is considered a "fire-able offense." She has asked us in e-mails and in person, not to print out our e-mails, electronically forward them or share them with anyone.
In a staff meeting 3/2, in the presence of [staffers], Davis discussed the expose-style article about Just Out on the Gay Rights Watch blog. She said she was going to have to "kill someone out there" and that if the leak came from inside the office, she'd "kill someone in here."
The following e-mails document that Davis expects her staff to continue working after paying us late and irregularly, falling several consecutive pay periods behind and only paying our net earnings.
Meanwhile, Davis fosters a hostile work environment with her unstable moods. Davis constantly goes back on her word about when she will pay the staff. Her hair-trigger temper that fluctuates from furious to tearful emerges when the staff asks about being paid and sometimes about routine Just Out business. She told the staff in person and in an e-mail (enclosed) that we are not to ask about our late paychecks or she will scream. She has gotten angry at staffers who ask about their paychecks. On 2/27, our last payday, Davis was angry at me for asking her at 4 p.m. if she was going to give the staff a payroll update, after she had not mentioned pay checks all day. She has also scolded us in an e-mail (enclosed) for giving her phone messages from bill collectors.
The staff has tried to offer money-saving suggestions, such as cutting the publication cycle back to once a month and moving to a smaller, less expensive building. We have accepted furlongs and have told Davis that we are willing to pay part or all of our health care benefits. We have offered to cut content in Just out to produce smaller, less expensive papers. [Art director Blake] Martinez redesigned Just Out so its dimensions are smaller and less expensive to print. Those suggestions—some taken, others not—have not solved the problem of paying employees late and irregularly.
Today, 3/12, is my last day at Just Out for those reasons—late, irregular pay, hostile work environment and no relief in sight—and because I want to file this BOLI report but I fear being subjected to the retaliation I have see committed against my colleagues.
Jaymee R. Cuti