Nearly 400 people losing their jobs in the next two weeks when The Honolulu Star-Bulletin merges with The Honolulu Advertiser may have to wait months for millions of dollars in severance pay.
All six unions representing employees at both newspapers have filed a grievance over severance.
Union contracts at both papers call for employees to be paid one week of salary as severance for every year's service, capped at 40 weeks of pay, if they're laid off. New employees are paid five weeks of severance, even if they?ve been employed less than five years, according to the contracts.
But a spokesman for the Hawaii Newspaper Guild, which represents reporters, photographers, ad sales people and others, said neither The Honolulu Advertiser's former owner, Gannett Co., nor its new owner, Oahu Publications, will clear up questions about whether severance will be paid to hundreds of people losing their jobs.
"The Oahu Publications people and Gannett refused to even comment about severance pay, wouldn't answer anybody's questions, wouldn't answer any inquiries about when it was going to be paid, how much was going to be paid or anything," said Wayne Cahill, administrative officer for the Hawaii Newspaper Guild.
The guild represents 230 employees at The Advertiser, where about half the newspaper's 580 employees are expected to be laid off in the merger. Roughly one-third of The Honolulu Star-Bulletin?s 300 employees are expected to lose their jobs as the papers combine into the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which debuts June 7.
That means approximately 390 people will be laid off because of the merger.
Millions of dollars are at stake in severance, but estimates vary widely. The guild estimates union members losing their jobs at both papers could be owed anywhere from $12 to $14 million in severance, according to Cahill. But managers at Oahu Publications, owner of the new combined paper, estimate the figure ranges between $5 and $8 million, covering union and non-union employees.
The unions have filed a grievance. "We're left with the idea that maybe they don't plan to pay it at all, and that's why we've taken the legal route," Cahill said.
Dennis Francis, the Star-Bulletin?s publisher who will hold the same title for the combined Star-Advertiser, told KITV4 he's holding off paying any severance until the grievance is settled.
"People will get their severance. We just need to get a resolution to their grievance," Francis said. ?We plan to meet our obligations, but the ramifications (of the grievance) could affect everyone. Until there?s a resolution to this grievance, the severance won?t be paid.?
A grievance could take as long as six months or even longer to settle in arbitration. "It's a terribly long time especially if you're out of pay and you're trying to make a house payment,? Cahill said.
The newspaper guild has assigned its international counsel from Washington, D.C., Barbara Camens, to handle the arbitration.
"These people that are losing their jobs are entitled to that severance pay, they need it to tide them over 'til they can get their next job. People could end up losing homes because of that,? Cahill said.
Francis said, "Severance might be delayed, but no one will be left out."
Francis said negotiations with newspaper union officials and their attorneys are scheduled to begin in the next week or so, and he's hopeful all sides can come to an agreement soon.
?Gannett owes us all severance because they terminated us. They did not transfer us to permanent jobs,? said Suzanne Roig, president of the Hawaii Newspaper Guild and a 15-year Advertiser reporter.
When KITV4 told Roig that Francis pledged to pay the severance eventually, she said, ?I am happy to hear that we will get paid severance. This money will help many of us take that next step into another career.
Cahill was critical of Canadian Publisher David Black, owner of Oahu Publications and publisher of the Star-Bulletin, which bought The Advertiser. "This is really a heck of a mess. Here we've got this guy from Canada that owns Oahu Publications, he's coming down and he seems to be trying to just push off all the obligations onto somebody else, and we don't even know who somebody else is," Cahill said.
Francis told KITV4 he expected to hire anywhere from 24 to 34 reporters and editors from The Advertiser newsroom for the new combined newspaper. That means less than one third of The Advertiser's 120 newsroom employees will be offered jobs.
Francis said job offers could begin as soon as late Friday afternoon, just eight days before The Advertiser closes for good.