Huge change: No more set vacation or sick days at LA Times

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for latimes-sign-sideview.jpgFirst, a little background. Dating to even before Tribune Company ownership of the LA Times, the cost cutters looked for a way to reduce the huge commitment on the books to pay for vacation days banked by employees. In newsrooms, like in many workplaces, staffers tend not to take a lot of vacation and thus the earned time off accrues. Well, the new ownership — Tribune Publishing — has found a way to trim this cost, while also giving managers a new hammer to hold over the heads of harried newsroom staffers. Starting January 1, staffers will no longer be able to bank vacation — because they won't automatically earn or be entitled to any vacation, sick days or floating holidays. To get any time off, a reporter or editor will have to go to a supervisor and make a case "subject to their professional judgment and to the performance expectations of their supervisor that apply to their job." In one stroke, vacation time and sick days become a management tool to monitor and reward or punish performance — or to favor the yes men that plague the Times' organization — and crucially, a way to get that expensive banked vacation off the books. That's because if a staffer succeeds in getting permission to take time off, he or she first has to use any banked time to pay for it. So the company's financial burden gradually lessens.

In theory an employee will be able to take more time off than now, since there will be no stated limit. Instead of, say, three weeks a year plus sick days, you could ask for eight weeks next summer to go trekking in Nepal and a supervisor could say cheerfully, "Cool! Take nine!" But I haven't talked to anyone around the Times who believes that's in the cards here — and this was the hot subject all weekend wherever Timesmen and women gathered, I'm told. Times staffers and managers already feel more pressure than ever to cover the news for print, web and social media with a much smaller and less experienced staff. The first line in the company's explanation of the objective behind the new Discretionary Time Off policy makes clear it's about performance: "A performance-driven culture is one where results are rewarded." The first bullet in a summary sent to all employees makes it clearer: To ask for time off, "you will need to understand your supervisor's expectations for your performance." Nothing subtle there.

Vacation time has always been subject to a desk's scheduling needs — keeping shifts covered is not what this is about. Any spinmeister who tries to say this is about allowing more time off or "flexibility" is lying to your face — if the big boss wants to give you a bonus of more paid time off now, he has ways to do so. Under the new blanket policy, to get any time off — say, to have dental surgery or for a sensitive family issue you don't want to talk about in the office — a staffer will have to sell a supervisor who may have his own performance pressures from above. Or who may not like you. Or who wants to send you or his bosses a message. The memo from the company repeats often that adequate time off will be officially encouraged and expected of supervisors, but the memo also stresses over and over that approval will be subject to overall performance. In an environment where just about everybody already half-expects to be laid off at any time, it feels like all the incentive will be to not even ask for time off. The company memo says supervisors will be evaluated on their employees taking enough time off — but whose work ethic will decide what is enough? It suddenly becomes totally subjective, in a newsroom where some women and minorities already feel out of place and out of favor in a sea of white men. When the next wave of staff cuts sweeps the newsroom, I doubt anybody wants to be the person who took a lot of time off and whose last tweet was insufficiently goosed to attract eyeballs.

So I expect there will be much less time taken off by Times staffers, who already seem kind of burned out — which appears to be a main goal of the policy. But there is a huge other motivation for Tribune Publishing. Banked vacation days — which the Times has to pay out in cash when employees leave or retire, and many are more or less perpetually trying to leave — will gradually evaporate off the books. This was a major perk for many employees, who may have forgone vacation for years in order to bank time and get paid for it when they retire, quit or get fired. Now they will have to draw down that banked asset to take any time off, even a sick day — no one will earn any more discretionary vacation days to bank. That's a pretty big financial and lifestyle hit for workers, including by the way many who have chosen to stick it out at the LAT while friends were leaving for more up-trending media outlets or just more stable employers. Now they all have more incentive to leave, seems to me. Good move, Tribune.

Romenesko posted on Friday the original Tribune Publishing memo which spun the new policy as good for employees. That went over so poorly that late Friday night Gwen Murakami, the senior VP for human resources, sent out an attempt to calm people down. Notice how carefully it is spun — and the audacious BS that the change is about giving employees "greater flexibility."

Subject: Message from Gwen Murakami, SVP/Human Resources - Discretionary Time Off (DTO) policy follow up.


Dear Times’ Exempt Employees:

There has been a certain amount of confusion from today’s communication regarding changes in Company policy on paid time off. I apologize for any lack of clarity around the communication.

Below is a summary of what will change and what won’t.

The Company’s new policy is an approach that is gaining favor at major companies like Netflix and Evernote that recognize the value of allowing employees to make appropriate work-life balance decisions for themselves. Tribune Publishing’s policy was developed in that spirit and is intended to allow exempt employees greater flexibility in taking paid time off.

Here is what will not change for exempt employees across Tribune Publishing, including those in California:

· As is the case now, any vacation accrued through December 31, 2014, that is not used before you leave the company, will be paid out if and when you do leave the company.

· You can use the same amount of time as your annual vacation allotment has been up to now -- or more. For instance, if you accrued 3 weeks of vacation per year in the past, you can still take off a similar amount in the future (or more). You and your supervisor will decide what’s appropriate. You will not lose vacation time accrued up to December 31, 2014 unless you use it by taking time off.

· Designated company holidays (New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day) do not apply to this new policy and will be paid as they are currently.

· The new policy does not apply to non-exempt, hourly employees including those in the Reporter I job category in the Los Angeles Times newsroom.

Here is what will change:

· You will not lose whatever accrued but unused vacation you have built up as of the end of 2014; it will available for you to use going forward until it has been exhausted.

· As of January 1, 2015, you will no longer accrue any additional vacation time, as you have in the past.

· You will no longer have a fixed allotment of vacation, floating holidays or sick days off per year. Instead, you will use the number of days you need, subject to your supervisor’s approval.

· After you use up your existing accrual, you will still be able to take paid time off (Discretionary Time Off - DTO) as you see fit, subject to your supervisor’s approval. You will not need to have “banked” time off in order to take vacation days.

Attached is a set of Frequently Asked Questions intended to clarify the new policy.

I don't have the full FAQs, but here's one of the memos that was sent to Times staffers earlier in the day.

From: Internal Communications
Sent: Friday, November 14, 2014 10:43 AM Subject: New Discretionary Time Off (DTO) Policy


Effective January 1, 2015, we will be introducing a new Discretionary Time Off (DTO) policy for all exempt (salaried) non-union employees. DTO is designed to create a flexible workplace for better work-life balance, encourage employee productivity and creativity and reduce employee burnout and administrative tasks associated with tracking time off. In general this new policy eliminates a fixed number of paid time off days and instead gives you, subject to the professional judgment and approval of your supervisor, the freedom to decide when and for how long to take time off.

The success of this policy requires a great deal of trust, responsibility, accountability and communication. Here are some items for you as an employee to consider when requesting time off:

* You will need to understand your supervisor's expectations for your performance.
* You may not be allowed to take time off when there are key deadlines or projects due for which your work is critical.
* Your supervisor may not be able to accommodate every request for time off or may ask you to check in from time-to-time while you are on time off (though supervisors should try to limit those check-ins).
* You are accountable for managing your own performance. Therefore, it's your responsibility to have an open discussion with your supervisor about your time off and its impact on your performance.
* As always, future career opportunities are assessed based on your performance and potential.

The attached policy and Q&A provides further details, including how DTO interacts with our newly enhanced short-term disability plan and other leaves of absences. While we believe this policy is pretty straightforward and easy to understand, we know you may have questions. If that is the case, please take the opportunity to contact your supervisor and/or your assigned HR generalist on this topic.

Thanks.

NOTE: The above policies applies to all exempt employees of Tribune Publishing and its business units, except those subject to collective bargaining agreements-under which their benefits and terms and conditions of employment were bargained, and whose coverage under these policies / programs is not required by the collective bargaining agreement.

Notice how, in the following examples from the FAQs, the managers invent the concept that earning vacation time that you can make plans around somehow is less "adult."

1. Why this change? Why now?


At Tribune Publishing, we need to focus on the value people add while at work and not on procedures that limit their creativity or potential. A performance-driven culture rewards results. So, rather than allotting a specific number of vacation or PTO days annually, we will permit exempt employees to take the amount of time off they need for purposes such as vacation, travel, and non-extended illness or injury, subject to the professional judgment and to the performance expectations of their supervisor. Those performance expectations include providing high-quality content and value for our readers and advertisers, meeting business needs and contributing to the overall success of our company.

2. Is there a set minimum or maximum under the policy?

No. In an effort to build a workplace where people are treated as responsible, trustworthy adults who are measured by their performance, there is no set minimum or maximum amount of time that can be taken in a given year. No Company employee is authorized to make any representations or commitments to an employee that is contrary to this policy.

* Added: OK, here are the full FAQs offered to Tribune Publishing staffers about the new time off policy. Thanks to all for providing them.

Discretionary Paid Time-Off (DTO) for Exempt (Salaried) Employees


General Questions and Answers

1. Why this change? Why now?

At Tribune Publishing, we need to focus on the value people add while at work and not on procedures that limit their creativity or potential. A performance-driven culture rewards results. So, rather than allotting a specific number of vacation or PTO days annually, we will permit exempt employees to take the amount of time off they need for purposes such as vacation, travel, and non-extended illness or injury, subject to the professional judgment and to the performance expectations of their supervisor. Those performance expectations include providing high-quality content and value for our readers and advertisers, meeting business needs and contributing to the overall success of our company.

2. Is there a set minimum or maximum under the policy?

No. In an effort to build a workplace where people are treated as responsible, trustworthy adults who are measured by their performance, there is no set minimum or maximum amount of time that can be taken in a given year. No Company employee is authorized to make any representations or commitments to an employee that is contrary to this policy. NOTE: Although the policy allows generally for unlimited time off, please see question #9 for how this policy applies to Leave of Absences.

3. How do I request DTO?

You must seek your supervisor’s approval before taking time off with as much advance notice as possible. Preplanned absences should be scheduled at least two weeks in advance whenever possible. Supervisors will grant approval for absences on a business need basis, will not unreasonably deny any requests and will provide you with a reason if they do have to deny your request. Approved time off MUST be tracked through the online time-off system (via Workday).

4. What is considered inappropriate use of this policy?

There are two kinds of offenders to this policy: those who take too much time and those who don’t take enough. This policy doesn’t allow employees to simply “not show up” without first contacting their supervisor. But, we also want to make sure that all employees are taking the time off that they need to renew and recharge for the road ahead. Simply put, the success of this policy will come from the communication that takes place between employees, team members and their supervisors. Chronic tardiness, patterns of unapproved absences, or failure to meet performance expectations will still be managed as a performance issue.

5. As a supervisor, what’s expected of me with regard to this policy?

The success of this policy depends upon our ability as leaders to lead people. In other words, it requires a great deal of trust, responsibility, accountability and communication. Here are some items for supervisors to consider as the policy is rolled out:

Supervisors will need to set and manage clear expectations for themselves and their employees.
Supervisors will have to plan ahead for projects that may be impacted by team members taking time off.
Supervisors may need to have tough conversations and let their employees know when they can’t take time off because it will impede on their teams’ efforts and ability to complete tasks at hand.
Supervisors should monitor their employee’s time off and encourage employees to take time off. Supervisors should limit requiring an employee to “check in” while taking time off in order to let them recharge and renew.
Supervisors will have to monitor outcomes on a regular basis to ensure their teams are performing in line with business expectations.

6. As an employee, what’s expected of me with regards to this policy?

The success of this policy requires a great deal of trust, responsibility, accountability and communication. Here are some items for you as an employee to consider when requesting time off:

You will need to understand your supervisor’s expectations for your performance.
You may not be allowed to take time off when there are key deadlines or projects due for which your work is critical.
Your supervisor may not be able to accommodate every request for time off or may ask you to check in from time-to-time while you are on time off (though supervisors should try to limit those check-ins).
You are accountable for managing your own performance. Therefore, it’s your responsibility to have an open discussion with your supervisor about your time off and its impact on your performance.
As always, future career opportunities are assessed based on your performance and potential.

7. What happens to banked “Disability Days” previously available for use with Short Term Disability?

As part of the new Short Term Disability Policy, which provides eligible employees with more generous coverage, banked “Disability Days” will no longer continue.

8. Can DTO be used to supplement unpaid FMLA or reduced Short Term Disability pay?
DTO is intended for routine time off and not for extended illness or injury. It is not intended to replace leaves of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act. As such, if you are absent from work for sickness or injury for a period of time greater than five (5) consecutive working days, you are required to apply for approval under the Short-Term Disability and/or FMLA policy and will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence pending certification and approval of FMLA.

Since Discretionary Time Off is intended for routine time off, you may not use it to supplement a reduced Short Term Disability period. Keep in mind, however, that the Short Term Disability policy was changed to pay at 100% of pay for up to four weeks.

9. Will I be denied a DTO request if I’m not meeting my goals?

Being on a performance improvement plan or other corrective action does not, in of itself, prevent you from taking time off. You must, however, have your supervisor’s approval and be able to satisfy all of your professional obligations in a timely manner. If your time off does not allow you to satisfy those professional obligations in a timely manner, you may be subject to corrective action up to and including termination of your employment.

10. If I leave the company will I be paid out unused DTO?

Since there are no formally designated “paid time off” days and the policy is generally unlimited, there is no need to accrue for vacation days and, consequently, nothing to pay out upon your leaving the company. If you work in California, any accrual you have as of 12/31/14 will be applied to your absences until the accrual has been exhausted. It is expected that you take time off each year, so we further expect to see your accrual decrease over time. If you work in California and you leave the company before your accrual has been exhausted, you will be paid out your accrued but unused vacation.



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Recent Read the memo stories on LA Observed:
Huge change: No more set vacation or sick days at LA Times
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