Lee Enterprises will plunder your Medical Retirement Account

Mar 8, 2017 by

Say, remember when we alerted our Post-Dispatch members about money they might have sitting in Medical Retirement Accounts?

Astrid Garcia

Never mind. Rather than merely hope that people forgot about those MRAs and never accessed them, the company decided to shut them down completely effective Dec. 31, 2017. Lee Enterprises VP for Human Resources and Legal Astrid Garcia sent you a letter to that effect this week. (If it makes you feel any better, this shutdown impacts P-D managers and everybody else across the Lee chain.)

Retirees and former P-D employees eligible to access their accounts can hurry up and spend the available money. Time to replace that hip! But current employees with money tucked away in their MRA are screwed. The company is taking away your vested benefit — a benefit you paid for by selecting the higher premium plan.

To review, UMG members who signed up for the Low-Deductible Medical Plan or Mid-Deductible Medical Plan had a Deductible Account to draw from. The company credited money to that account for reimbursements for incurred medical expenses which count toward the plan deductible.

The unused money from each given year went into a Medical Retirement Account. Employees who met vesting requirements were to access that money for medical expenses after they left the Post-Dispatch and were 55 years old or older.

As our benefits expert noted in a Q&A on our website, the Summary Plan Description described the Medical Retirement Accounts as notional. As our expert noted, Lee Enterprises claimed the right to terminate them at any time.

Our contract does allow the company the ability to modify medical plans. But does the company have the legal right to strip away a vested benefit under our Collective Bargaining Agreement? Our lawyers are starting to review that.

It seems like we’ve been down this road before with Lee Enterprises . . .

In the meantime, we would like all of our members scheduled to lose their MRA money Dec. 31 to check on their amount and send the total in an e-mail to UMG Business Rep Shannon Duffy at sduffy@unitedmediaguild.org.

Every member impacted needs to know just how much money the company is taking from them. (In my case, it was $7,882.39.)

As of 5:03 p.m. Wednesday, that information was still available on the Link Lee site in the Tri-Star Systems section, although not real easy to find. (Click on “Account Summary” and scroll down to Plan Year: 02/01/2008 – 12/31/2017 and Medical Retirement Account button should appear.)

We need to document the full economic impact to our members and react accordingly.

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New Media/GateHouse keeps buying and diminishing newspapers

Feb 28, 2017 by

Early on in his fourth quarter earnings call for investors, New Media Investment Group CEO Michael Reed singled out the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for its award-winning investigative reporting.

“We are so proud of the role our publications play within the communities they serve as the dominant sources of comprehensive high quality local news and information,” Reed read from his script. “These local brands are the cornerstone to our organic growth strategy allowing us to leverage our strong community standing in ties, our highly recognized brands, and our large in market local sales force, which is helping us further expand our digital and service offerings for small businesses.”

Of course, Reed didn’t mention the round after round of cuts the Herald-Tribune newsroom has suffered under New Media ownership and GateHouse Media management. Nor did he mention that the Herald-Tribune was an award-winning newspaper long before New Media bought it and began the wholesale bloodletting of journalists.

Reed addressed that payroll slashing with typical CEOSpeak: “Subsequent to the quarter close, we have implemented a cost reduction program that is expected to reduce expenses over $3 million in the first quarter of 2017 and over $27 million for the full year of 2017.”

In other words, expect the layoffs to just keep coming. Expect to see fewer and fewer reporters working in the communities and less and less reporting on topics vital to the residents.

Here are some other highlights:

  • For a change, Reed didn’t claim that New Media stock is undervalued by Wall Street. Its share price has been hovering in the $15 to $16 range, a far cry from the $40 or more some experts predicted for the stock when it was first issued.
  • Reed talked up the increased New Media dividend ($0.35 this time around), which is funded by the cash flow from local newspaper properties. Rather than reinvest in its news-gathering operations and reader retention, the company bleeds profits from these properties through round after round of cost reduction.
  • The company is still banking heavily on circulation revenue. While print circulation continues to plummet across the chain, the company offsets that with price increases and paid digital subscriptions. That is not a sustainable model, particularly given the dramatic newsroom reductions across the chain. People won’t keep paying more for less. They just won’t. Also, newspaper reader demographics skew old. Younger people are getting the information in other places.
  • Reed noted the company suffered massive declines in print advertising, led by the industry-wide decline in “pre-print” advertising from major retailers and classified advertising. While that decline may slow in the years ahead, Reed admitted that it won’t reverse.
  • He once against talked up “organic growth” in the company, but this time he didn’t put a timeline on it. Instead Reed stressed the diversification of revenues, including growth in digital ad sales, Propel Marketing, commercial printing and event presentation.
  • Reed also talked up the company’s expanding BridgeTower Media group of business publications. Those properties aren’t subject to the steep retail advertising declines that imperil the newspaper business.
  • Some of the company’s healthy cash flow will continue flowing into acquisitions. One by one, New Media/GateHouse is picking off family-owned operations and stripping them down for cash flow. That “inorganic growth” will feed the revenue bottom line for years to come as the grand consolidation of newspapers continues.

Fortress Investment Group, now owned by Japan’s Softbank, will continue reaping huge external management fees from New Media/GateHouse for as long as company lasts. Such is the reward for raising capital for expansion. Fortress earned $19.4 million in compensation last year from New Media after raking in $39.7 million the year before.

Fortress owns about 1 percent stake of the New Media stock, so it is not overly concerned about the stock price tanking. And yet Fortress employs Reed as the New Media CEO, raising reasonable questions about his commitment to producing shareholder value. (Although it should be noted that Reed has bought 60,000 shares of the stock the past few months at a cost of nearly $800,000)

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By supporting real journalism, you support real democracy

Feb 17, 2017 by

“Real News, Real Journalism” is more than a subscription slogan for the UMG-represented St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It is a civic necessity in these tumultuous times, when many rights we hold sacred — especially the freedom of the press — are under assault.

We wholeheartedly agree with Society of Professional Journalists president Lynn Walsh’s statement of President Donald Trump’s latest attack on the media:

“When President Trump continues his anti-media, anti-press rhetoric, tip-toes around questions from journalists and chooses not to provide support for information he shares, the American public is the biggest loser. The public is entitled to ask the White House, Mr. Trump and other government officials and employees questions, whether the topics are something they feel are newsworthy or appropriate. Journalists fill the role for the public by working every day to hold them accountable, ask about policies and question facts, figures and information being shared by the government. Journalists will continue to do their jobs to hold this administration and all government officials accountable so the public can have the information it is entitled to.”

You can support real journalism by subscribing to the Post-Dispatch. Subscribers to the digital access or print edition delivery (Sundays, three days or seven days) plus digital access also get a free 52-week digital subscription to the Washington Post.

That has huge value these days. Post journalists, represented by the Baltimore-Washington Guild, are doing a remarkable job of chronicling history as it unfolds in our nation’s capital.

Citizens in Illinois should subscribe the State Journal-Register, the Peoria Journal Star, the Rockford Register Star, the Pekin Daily Times and the Freeport Journal- Standard to support quality journalism at the state and regional level.

The UMG represents the hard-working journalists at each of those newspapers.

If you are interested in supporting organized labor, you should subscribe to the St. Louis Labor Tribune, one of the country’s top newspapers of its kind. Those in the Catholic faith should subscribe to the St. Louis Review to learn more about their community. The UMG represents employees at those two publications as well.

Finally, the progressive Truthout website has never been more essential as it sheds light on our nation’s greatest challenges. This fiercely independent publication relies on reader support to do its groundbreaking work on a national level. You can donate here and back the efforts of UMG-represented journalists.

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About those Medical Retirement Accounts at the Post-Dispatch

Feb 14, 2017 by

The United Media Guild asked our benefits consultant, Jack Alheim, to explain the Medical Retirement Account that many of our members have gained through their insurance at the Post-Dispatch.

Here is his disclaimer, then his report:

Following is a summary of the Annual Deductible Account and Medical Retirement Account (MRA) offered by Lee Enterprises as a company paid benefit. The following summary is intended to be accurate, however, if terms in the following summary or the Summary Plan Description (SPD) are inconsistent, the SPD or the Lee Medical Plan document will govern. Participants should refer to the Summary Plan Description (SPD) for terms and conditions not outlined below.

What is the benefit?

Each year that you are enrolled in an Eligible Plan, Lee Enterprises will credit a certain amount to a Deductible Account on your behalf. Such amount can be used to reimburse you for expenses incurred which count toward your plan deductible.

What is an Eligible Plan and who is an eligible for this benefit?

Employees enrolled in the Low-Deductible Medical Plan or the Mid-Deductible Medical Plan offered under the Lee Enterprises Welfare Benefit Plan are eligible to receive the employer paid benefit. Employees enrolled in the High-Deductible Medical Plan are not eligible to receive the benefit.

What is the amount of the benefit offered?

If you are enrolled in individual coverage, the amount credited to your Deductible Account is $500 per year.

If you are enrolled in family coverage, the amount credited to your Deductible Account is $1,000 per year. Reimbursements are permitted for expenses incurred by the employee and eligible dependents covered under the plan. The maximum amount that can be used for medical expenses attributable to any one person may not exceed $500 each year.

What can the benefit be used for?

You may be reimbursed from your Deductible account only for out of pocket medical expenses that count toward your plan deductible for the plan year. See the main SPD for information regarding your deductible. To be reimbursed for deductible expenses incurred in a particular plan year, you must submit claims for reimbursement for such expenses on or before March 31 of the next year.

I was in an eligible plan but switched to another Lee medical plan, what does that do to my benefits under the Deductible Account and MRA?

See the SPD for details on changes from individual coverage to family coverage, family coverage to individual coverage, disenrollment, termination and other changes.

How do I submit claims for reimbursement?

Eligible claims incurred by each participant are automatically submitted by United Healthcare to Tri-Star Systems, the Deductible Account Plan Administrator. As you incur eligible medical expenses, United Healthcare reports eligible expenses to Tri-Star Systems for you. Tri-Star will send you and email reimbursement notification confirming the expense. When you receive this notification, you must log on to  http://www.link.lee.net and approve the claim for reimbursement. If approved, you will be reimbursed by direct deposit or check.

What if I don’t approve the claim or chose not to be reimbursed, do I lose the benefit?

No. Amounts credited to you Deductible Account for a year that are not used for reimbursement of claims during the year are automatically rolled over to a Medical Retirement Account (MRA). You may use amounts credited to the MRA to reimburse post-retirement medical expense, if certain vesting requirements are satisfied. If you chose not to approve the claim from the Deductible Account, this will preserve more of your benefit to roll over to your MRA.

What can the MRA be used for?

You may be reimbursed from your MRA account for retiree and/or eligible depended medical out of pocket medical expenses. Routine medical expenses including premiums paid for an employer-sponsored plan or other plan including Medicare Part B, C and D premiums.

Are there restrictions on the MRA benefits?

In order to be eligible to use the amounts transferred to your MRA, you must satisfy the following requirements:

  • You must be age 55 or older.
  • You must not be an active employee of Lee Enterprises or an affiliate of Lee Enterprises.

You must also satisfy certain vesting service requirements. You will vest in the amounts deposited into your MRA and such amounts will be available for your use after you have earned four (4) years of service. Each year you work at least 1,000 hours, and were enrolled in a Lee medical plan and were an active employee on the last day of the year equals one year of service. Note Years of service earned prior to January 1, 2008, do not count toward satisfaction of the years of service requirement.

How do I claim reimbursements under the MRA?

The Administrator of the MRA is Tri-Star Systems. Claims for reimbursement from your MRA should be made by submitting a claims form to Tri-Star Systems. The claims form is available on Tri-Star Systems website (http://www.tri-starsystems.com) and on LINK (http://link.lee.net) and may be submitted online or via facsimile. You should contact Tri-Star Systems for more information.

Is the Deductible Account and MRA considered “my account” and can I receive the unused amounts as a cash distribution?

No. The Deductible Account and MRA are notational accounts maintained solely for bookkeeping. Benefit distributions are only allowed for medical reimbursements as outlined in the plan.

If I die, can my spouse and dependents use this account?

Yes, but it is limited. Upon your death, any dependent child or spouse may use the amounts in your MRA, but only to the extent such amounts are vested as of the date of your death, to pay premiums for his or her own COBRA continuation coverage with respect to the plan in which he or she was enrolled. If any amounts remain in the MRA account after your dependent’ COBRA continuation coverage terminates, those amounts will be forfeited.

Are the Deductible Account and MRA benefits guaranteed?

No. While Lee Enterprises states that it intends to continue the Deductible Account and the MRA portions of the Eligible Plans, it reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to modify, change, revise, amend or terminate such portions at any time, for any reason, without prior notice. This includes vested MRA balances.

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UMG contract with Peoria Journal Star rolls over for another year

Feb 14, 2017 by

The United Media Guild’s collective bargaining agreement with the Peoria Journal Star has extended for another year, until March 31, 2018.

Article XVIII of the CBA (as extended through March 31, 2017) includes a rollover clause that extends the full CBA year by year, in the absence of timely written notice of an intention to change or terminate the CBA. The definition of timely notice is spelled out:

“Such written notice shall be presented to the other party not less than sixty (60) days prior to March 31, 2014, or any following March 31.”

The UMG decided not to request to bargain a new contract in Peoria, given the protections in place in the current CBA and the concessions GateHouse Media is demanding at other Guild-represented newspapers.

And when the company missed the notification deadline by one day, we informed the company that the contract had already rolled over.

GateHouse has maintained a strict “no raises” position in negotiations with the UMG for first contracts at the State Journal-Register in Springfield and the Rockford Register Star. The company has made no effort to negotiate fair deals at either newspaper and it imposed working conditions at the SJ-R after declaring an impasse.

Given that draconian stance, the UMG saw nothing to be gained by negotiating in Peoria. The Journal Star has protected its copy desk from outsourcing and maintained pay scales that are superior to similar GateHouse newspapers.

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UMG honors Joel Currier with Terry Hughes Award

Feb 4, 2017 by

Joel Currier

The United Media Guild honored St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Joel Currier with the Terry Hughes Award for outstanding journalism in 2016.

Currier received the award, judged by past winners, at UMG’s Local meeting and awards ceremony Feb, 2 at Lombardo’s restaurant in St. Louis.

Post-Dispatch reporter Michelle Munz, the Hughes award winner in 2015, cited several stories Currier reported for the Post-Dispatch during the presentation. In particular, his story about an innocent woman incarcerated for one year awaiting trial for a murder she did not commit was a compelling example of how journalists can shed light on the plight of society’s underdogs.

Also at the dinner, the UMG honored State Journal-Register reporter Jason Nevel with its Guilder of the Year Award. Nevel, vice chair of our Springfield (Ill.) unit, has played an instrumental role in the three-year fight for a first contract at that newspaper.

Jason Nevel and family

He has assisted unit chair Dean Olsen and business representative Shannon Duffy in contract negotiations and helped drive our internal and external mobilization. He has donated hundreds of hours to our campaign at the expense of time with his young family.

Nevel loves journalism and he believes in the SJ-R’s vital role in the greater Springfield community. So he is helping lead the fight against GateHouse Media, the asset-stripping manager of the SJ-R and four other papers the UMG represents in Illinois — The Peoria Journal Star, Rockford Register Star, Freeport Journal Standard and the Pekin Daily Times.

Also honored at the UMG event were Post-Dispatch advertising representative John DuBois as Steward of the Year, the Mid-South Organizing Committee for the Solidarity Award and Local president Jeff Gordon as Activist of the Year.

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Right to Work and the UMG

Feb 4, 2017 by

WHAT IS RIGHT TO WORK?

It is a catchy name for union-busting legislation. Labor law requires unions to represent every employee in their bargaining units fully and fairly. But “Right to Work” laws allow employees to refuse to pay for that legally-mandated representation. That can weaken unions by reducing their solidarity and dues collection.

Imagine running a fire protection district where residents could opt not to pay, yet still receive service by law. Imagine running a school district where homeowners could refuse to pay property taxes, yet still have the legal right to send their children to school in that district. Such is the challenge unions face in a Right to Work environment.

By weakening unions, companies in Right to Work states can drive down wages and diminish workers rights. This is why businessmen have pumped millions of dollars into Missouri elections to support anti-union candidates. And this is why national Right to Work legislation seems likely in the current political environment.

CIRCUMVENTING DEMOCRACY

Unions are democratic institutions. Workers can vote a union into their workplace. They can also vote the union out. They elect their officers. They vote to approve or reject collective bargaining agreements. Those agreements decide whether the workplace has a “union shop” — as the United Media Guild has at the Post-Dispatch and other units — or an “open shop” where representation fees are effectively optional. In a union shop employees can refuse to join to the union, but they must pay agency fees for their representation. Agency fees are union dues minus the small percentage that goes to union lobbying and other political activity.

Right to Work laws prohibit the union shop contract language. It allows employees to benefit from the union protections whether they pay representation fees or not. Remember, the union is legally bound to represent both members and non-members fully and fairly.

THE LAW AND YOU

The new Right to Work legislation in Missouri does not void current contracts. So any union shop language currently in place will remain in effect as long as a contract is in effect. At the Post-Dispatch, our current contract includes an evergreen clause that keeps the agreement in effect as long as negotiations for a new contract are still ongoing. In future contracts the workplace will be an open shop.

MOVING FORWARD

The United Media Guild will strive to maintain as much solidarity as possible in our impacted units. That is our greatest leverage in the workplace. A recent battle for the Post-Dispatch advertising staff, for instance, was resolved through solidarity — salespersons sticking together on a key compensation issue and newsroom employees standing behind them.

The craft of journalism is under assault these days, as are basic workers rights. Sticking together has never been more critical, both in the workplaces and with the broader fights being waged by The NewsGuild and its parent union, the Communications Workers of America.

The UMG will redouble our efforts to engage members and address their concerns. We must work more aggressively in our workplaces. As somebody on the national TNG staff noted earlier this week, we must build stronger communities of workers in the current environment. We want every member to be an activist and an organizer.

As for the business side of things, the UMG has been anticipating Right to Work for some time. We have streamlined our operation while becoming a more diversified local, adding new media and social justice units. We will continue reaching out to workers seeking representation. Merging with other local unions, as we did with the Peoria Newspaper Guild, is another possibility.

In short, the UMG isn’t going anywhere. We’re in this for the long haul and we hope our members feel the same way.

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Post-Dispatch offers enhanced severance to UMG members

Feb 3, 2017 by

The Post-Dispatch is offering Guild members with at least 10 years of service during this fiscal year — and who will be 55 years or older during this fiscal year — an opportunity to collect enhanced severance of up to 39 weeks to leave.

As you may recall, the Guild agreed to scale back severance pay for voluntary departures in our current collective bargaining agreement. It is currently capped at 26 weeks.

The company recently made the 39-week severance offer to non-represented employees. Based on interest from some of our members, the company decided to make the same offer to the Guild on a one-time, non-precedent, non-referral basis. The Guild accepted.

Here are some important details:

There are 44 Guild members eligible for this severance. The company is looking for up to 10 volunteers.

Volunteers would get two weeks of severance pay for every year of service, up to the 39 weeks of pay. Under the contract, newer employees only get one week of severance for every year of service. The company offered two weeks per year for all of our members on a one-time, non-precedent, non-referral basis.

Volunteers will also collect accrued (if any is accrued) vacation pay.

Volunteers are being sought on a first-come, first-served basis. Under the contract, volunteers are prioritized by seniority, with members with longer tenures getting first crack at this. The Guild agreed to waive that condition on a one-time, non-precedent, non-referral basis to exchange for the higher severance.

As under the contract, the company reserves the right to deny the voluntary departure of employees critical to meeting the business needs of the Post.

Interested members should contact Bruce Benson at bbenson@post-dispatch.com or 314-340-8065.

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