Russ Orrison of Lexington and Elaine Akers of Dublin probably don’t know each other. But both readers had the same idea when they read notices in this newspaper this month that yours truly was on a two-week unpaid furlough.
“Could this be because he ‘stepped on somebody’s toes?’ ” Akers wondered in a query to the newsroom. “You got in trouble, or are you taking one for the team?” Orrison asked in an email to me directly.
The answer is, I didn’t get in trouble. At least not yet, despite my best efforts. And I’m back in the saddle now. I was gone temporarily because all workers at The Roanoke Times — and at many other Virginia newspapers — have been required to take unpaid furloughs.
Much the same is true for retail and restaurant workers and other employees in the Roanoke Valley and beyond. All of it’s related to the coronavirus pandemic and the often-devastating effects on business revenue caused by necessary social distancing.
And that’s the reason behind the Virginia is For Journalists Relief Fund. The GoFundMe.com campaign was the brainchild of employees at The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, The Roanoke Times, The (Charlottesville) Daily Progress and The (Newport News) Daily Press.
It’s intended to benefit any “current full- or part-time journalist working or freelancing for a Virginia newspaper who is experiencing a cut in pay or work as a result of COVID-19 cost-cutting,” according to the GoFundMe page.
“This includes reporters, editors, photographers, designers and interns at both unionized and non-unionized papers. We can also help Virginia-based freelancers who have worked for local Virginia publications this year who are experiencing a reduction in work,” the page notes.
Here in Roanoke, and at all other newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises, required furloughs amount to two weeks off without pay during the current quarter. The same is true for staffers at Ogden Newspapers, which publishes six Virginia papers.
At a couple of Gannett-owned Virginia dailies, some staffers are required to take three weeks during the same timeframe.
At Tribune Media, which includes The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot and The (Newport News) Daily Press, some employees will later this month see their pay cut by 2% to 10%, depending on how much they earn. Those cuts are permanent, according to an April 9 story in the Chicago Tribune.
As you might imagine — or as you already know because your profession has also been hit with furloughs — this is putting a strain on many household budgets around the commonwealth. The fund is designed to relieve that, just a bit.
As of yesterday afternoon, it had collected $12,697 from 202 donations that ranged from $10 to $500. Already the fund has distributed $1,740 to 11 Virginia journalists who have applied for relief, said Sara Gregory. She’s a former reporter here in Roanoke who now works for The Virginian-Pilot.
Monday, I got a chance talk to one of the fund’s beneficiaries. Her name is Jessica Wetzler and she’s a reporter for The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg. Her first furlough week began this week.
Wetzler, 23, graduated in December 2018 from Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communication. She rents a studio apartment that costs more than the take-home pay she earns in two weeks, she said. She’s paid hourly.
She asked me not to disclose her wages in this column. You’ll have to take my word that they’re low.
After rent and student loan payments (which have been deferred temporarily during the pandemic), a monthly car note, auto insurance, and other regular expenses, Wetzler typically has $50 to $100 left over each month for food, she said.
That means on occasion “I go to the store and get ramen for the week so I’m not spending all my ‘leftover’ money,” Wetzler said.
The $180 Wetzler received from the Virginia is For Journalists Relief Fund means that her furlough won’t leave her in the tough position of having to choose which expense not to pay, she said.
So far, the amounts distributed by the fund range between $100 and $250, Gregory told me. The current cap is $300. Applicants can apply more than once, and Gregory told me she expects some will.
The organizers are trying to keep the total distributed to any one journalist this year to under $600, because there are tax implications involved in granting more than that, Gregory added.
This is hardly the only occupation organizing worker relief funds. Restaurant workers from Richmond have organized a similar relief effort. As of yesterday, the Richmond Restaurant Workers Relief Fund had collected more than $119,000.
Another effort, called “Feed the Frontline Roanoke,” has taken in $745 to help buy prepared food from local restaurants for doctors, nurses physician assistants and first-responders in area emergency rooms.
The point is, during this unprecedented-in-our-lifetimes pandemic, we’re all going to need to rely on each other a bit more.
Anything you care to donate to any of the above is appreciated.
If you already subscribe to your local paper, thanks! And if you don’t, please consider supporting local journalism with a subscription.