Washingtonian CEO apologizes after staffers strike over op-ed on remote work

Washingtonian CEO apologizes after staffers strike over op-ed on remote work
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Washingtonian CEO and President Cathy Merrill publicly apologized Friday after her editorial staff went on a web-based strike to protest a Washington Post op-ed she wrote about remote work and returning to the office post-pandemic.

“I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status,” Merrill said in a statement. “I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else.”  

In the op-ed posted Thursday, Merrill said employees who still want to work remotely after COVID-19 bans are lifted might be reclassified as contractors by some employers.

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That would mean, she wrote, they would be paid for just the time they work, and lose regular salaries as well as benefits “that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation.” 

Many members of her editorial staff read the essay as a threat, and, in response, refused to post content to the Washingtonian’s website Friday — though they continued working on the print edition — and tweeted a statement about Merrill’s op-ed.

“As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor,” senior editor Andrew Beaujon posted to Twitter. “We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today.”

It was not clear how many staff participated in the work action, though Beaujon told The Hill it was “the entire editorial staff and the art and photo staff. Not the managers.”  

The protest tweet was also reposted by several members of the staff.

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In addition to the public statement, Merrill also sent her staff a memo apologizing for the op-ed. 

In the memo, which was obtained by The Hill, Merrill wrote, “I understand that some of you have read it as threatening, or as an indication that I'm anything less than ecstatically appreciative of the work and sacrifice of our team in 2020.”

“As I have expressed many times, in a year that was especially difficult for me personally, I could not be happier or prouder or have more gratitude in my heart for all of you. I'm so sorry that the op-ed made it look like anything else,” she added. 

Merrill also said, however, that the option to work remotely would only be available until pandemic bans are lifted.

"And, just as we've been a flexible office since long before COVID-19, we will make accommodations for staff who need them for as long as the pandemic lasts,” she wrote.

While news of the controversy spread via Twitter, some observers pointed out that The Washington Post had changed the headline of Merrill’s op-ed to make it seem less threatening.

The headline was edited, a source familiar with the controversy said, after Merrill read her essay on the Post’s website Thursday evening and wrote its staff with concerns about it. Merrill did not specifically ask for the headline to be changed, the source said, but said the current one was inaccurate.

The Post then decided to rewrite it. 

It was not clear if Merrill had been in touch with her employees before contacting the Post about the headline or if she knew they were planning a work stoppage.

Post page editor Fred Hiatt confirmed that he asked his staff to edit the headline Friday morning and that it was changed around 7 a.m.

Hiatt would not say if Merrill requested the change or if he had communicated with her about the essay. As “a matter of policy, I don’t talk about our conversations, or non-conversations, with writers,” he said via email.