- By Roy Malone
Davenport, Iowa — It was an emotional scene at the end of the recent annual meeting of Lee Enterprises, the newspaper chain that owns the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
There stood the young and very nervous Erica Douglas telling Lee directors and executives how her father, a Post retiree, died a few months ago after Lee cut off his health care benefits.
Robert Douglas, who died in his home, suffered from diabetes and high blood pressure but was unable to get health care or the medicine he needed. He was 59.
He was a conscientious and respected newsroom clerk at the Post for nearly 40 years. He and several dozen support staff were laid off in 2008 but knew they would get some severance, a small pension, and health benefits for life under the St. Louis Newspaper Guild contract. That perk induced more than 100 other newsroom employees to accept buyouts in 2005 and 2007.
But then Lee cut off the health care benefits to the retirees. It is fighting in court to keep the Guild’s grievance from going to arbitration and possibly having to pay the retirees what the company had promised, in writing.
Robert was told in November, 2010 that his health care was being ended and that he would have to pay 100 percent of his health care costs if he wanted to stay with the Post’s plan. If he did that, he would lose his $366 per month pension and still owe the company $214 each month. “I can’t afford to pay for it,” he told the company a year ago.
He was too young for Medicare, was not able to get another plan, and didn’t qualify for Medicaid. He tried some health clinics with limited success. He cadged insulin from other diabetics but it wasn’t helping.
“My father helped people all his life,” Erica read from her letter to the company. “But when he needed help, the company that he spent his life serving, threw him out and reneged on its promises.
“On December 16, my family and I found my father’s body on his kitchen floor. He was 59. What a way to find your dad, the man who loved you and raised you, the man who taught you right from wrong.
“Do you know all of the harm that you’ve caused your employees and their families? They are human beings, just like you. They gave their all, only to find out, sadly, that loyalty is a one-way street.
“My father was Robert Douglas and I hope that you remember his name for the rest of your lives,” Erica said in closing, as she fought back tears.
Mary E. Junck, chairman and CEO of Lee, said she was sorry about what happened to Robert Douglas. She then explained how the newspaper industry has fallen on hard times with the poor economy and how Lee, along with many other companies, found it necessary to cut costs, including the health benefits.
Erica was accompanied to Davenport, Lee’s headquarters, with a contingent of Guild members from St. Louis. One, retiree Richard P. Hughes, presented the company with a bill for $7,792, the amount he said his wife is owed because she had to pay for his health insurance on her plan, after his was terminated by Lee.
— Roy Malone is a Guild (Post-Dispatch) retiree