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CEO dismissed working from home. Her employees went on strike

CEO suggested remote workers can't participate in office life

CBS NEWS – Megan Cerullo

The editorial staff at the Washingtonian magazine revolted Friday after its CEO penned an op-ed column saying corporate managers have “a strong incentive” to demote employees who don’t return to the office.

The Washington Post on Thursday ran an opinion piece by Catherine Merrill, the chief executive of Washingtonian Media, in which she lamented that many employees prefer to continue working from home amid the widespread shift to remote jobs during the coronavirus pandemic

“I am concerned about the unfortunately commonoffice worker who wants to continue working at home and just go intothe office on occasion,” Merrill wrote. 

The executive also took that a sentiment a step further, suggesting that remote workers can’t participate in office life and associated activities like “helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture.” As as result, their companies could be justified if they “change their status to ‘contractor.'”

“Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriateoutput metrics. That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes —benefits that in my company’s caseadd up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation,” Merrill wrote.

Among the Washingtonian’s employees, Merrill’s piece prompted outrage — and a revolt, with journalists at the magazine issuing a statement on Twitter saying they would not publish any articles on Friday. Staffers at the magazine told CBS MoneyWatch the piece was poorly worded and they read it as taking aim at dedicated employees who have been laboring around the clock under trying circumstances for more than a year. 

“As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor. We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today,” a number of the publisher’s 25 editorial staffers said on Twitter.  

Merrill sought to defuse the tension on Friday, saying in a statement to CBS MoneyWatch that the media outlet “embraces a culture in which employees are able to express themselves openly.”

“I value each member of our team not only on a professional level but on a personal one as well,” Merrilll said. “I could not be more proud of their work and achievements under the incredibly difficult circumstances of the past year. I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status. I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else.”

The dispute highlights the emerging complexities for companies across the U.S. as they weigh whether to summon employees back to the office as the pandemic ebbs. Many employers are considering so-called “hybrid” arrangements in which at least some staffers work from home, with other personnel reporting in to the office in an effort to preserve an organization’s culture.

Yet management and HR experts warn that such divisions can create a sense of unfairness among workers, cause internal friction, and even create a divide between in-person and remote workers. Even for corporate leaders like Merrill who place a premium on employees working shoulder-to-shoulder, the challenge is to adapt to a post-pandemic environment that might make traditional work models obsolete.

Merrill’s op-ed was originally titled, “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office,” and later changed to, “As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work.”

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, said in a statement he asked his team to change the headline “to something that I thought better captured the piece.” But the change was not in reaction to the work stoppage by Washingtonian staffers, and no other revisions to the op-ed were made, he said. 

An employee for the Washingtonian — who spoke to CBS MoneyWatch on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly — said she interpreted Merrill’s piece as a direct threat to staffers like herself.

“I don’t know how you would read that as anything other than a direct message to your employees,” the worker said. She and her colleagues felt “blindsided and confused,” she added, since the company had been engaging in what she called productive conversations about what an eventual return to the office might look like. 

Regarding the strike, “We decided to take a stand and say the work that we do needs to be valued more than was demonstrated in that piece,” the employee added.

Although employers have the legal right to set the terms and conditions of employment and can require employees to report to a physical office, independent contractor status does not hinge on whether someone works in the office or remotely, said Helen Rella, an employment attorney at law firm Wilk Auslander. 

Instead, a worker’s status as an employee versus a contractor relates to who controls the work. “It’s a legal classification under federal law that examines who controls the terms and conditions of the services rendered,” Rella said. 

“Independent contractors are typically people who come in, do a discrete task, and they exercise independent judgment,” Rella added. “And when that task is complete they move on.”