Opinion

It is eerily quiet around the Winnipeg Free Press building on Mountain Avenue. The parking lot is mostly empty, few people walk the halls, and employees keep their distance from one another.

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This article was published 6/4/2020 (440 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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It is eerily quiet around the Winnipeg Free Press building on Mountain Avenue. The parking lot is mostly empty, few people walk the halls, and employees keep their distance from one another.

The silence is deceiving, however: the people behind the newspaper are working harder than ever in this new reality to keep readers informed about the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on their lives, and what they need to do to stay healthy.

Reporters work from makeshift newsrooms in their homes; photographers take pictures of people standing behind windows; carriers stay in their vehicles and pick up papers in a drive-through lineup; customer service representatives answer phones in a thinned-out call centre; accounting staff make crucial moves to meet our financial obligations; press operators show up every night — and have vowed to get the paper out, even if they have to wear full protective gear to do so.

Inside workers at the Free Press have voted to accept 20 per cent or 12 per cent pay cuts. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)</p>

Inside workers at the Free Press have voted to accept 20 per cent or 12 per cent pay cuts. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Their lives have changed profoundly, but their devotion to delivering the news has not.

I thought nothing could make me prouder, but I was wrong. Employees of the Free Press and Canstar community newspapers have now agreed to reduce their wages to ensure the company has enough funds to make it through the next few difficult weeks.

The temporary cut will be 20 per cent for most staff, and 12 per cent for others in some reduced wage categories.

Unionized employees, who are members of Unifor, voted in favour of the reduction Sunday. Managers will also take a 20 per cent cut; some have volunteered to take more. I will be taking a 50 per cent salary reduction.

The goal is to keep enough money in the bank to pay the bills until the company's position improves. Free Press advertising has declined significantly due to the lack of activities amid the COVID-19 restrictions.

Other newspapers have closed or implemented massive layoffs. Last week, four community newspapers in southwestern Manitoba shut down for the foreseeable future.

To practise social distancing, Winnipeg Free Press photographers have been taking lots of pictures of subjects through windows and doors.

To practise social distancing, Winnipeg Free Press photographers have been taking lots of pictures of subjects through windows and doors.

At the Free Press, we have stubbornly stuck to the belief our work is needed now more than ever — in digital and print formats — as we bring updates around the clock on a pandemic that is changing lives on an hourly basis.

Help is on the way for the Free Press and other businesses. The federal government has announced a very generous emergency subsidy program that could pay 75 per cent of the wages of workers for companies with revenues that have fallen by 30 per cent.

However, the program is moving at the speed of government, not the speed of business. The earliest the Free Press might get any money is the middle of May, if it qualifies. There are a lot of payrolls to meet between now and then, and you cannot pay employees with government promises.

The Free Press has also calculated it is eligible for more than $1 million for 2019 under the federal journalism tax credit program. However, that program has not paid out any money yet to any recipient — and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

The bottom line is the Free Press had to take action to deal with the real-time business challenges, which meant asking employees for another sacrifice.

It’s hard to do when you see other companies giving raises to staff playing a role in the battle against COVID-19. I had to say: "Your work is crucial. Now please take a pay cut."

Their answer was yes. They understand their work is important, so important they will do it even if their salaries are cut.

Readers of the Winnipeg Free Press could not ask to be served by a more dedicated group of people.

Bob Cox

Bob Cox
Publisher

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

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