The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

Vacation now! LA Times employees lose control of their time off

As LA Observed reported last week, Los Angeles Times employees are getting a sort of nasty double-whammy, when it comes to vacation time. According to the LAT memo that Kevin Roderick published

As of October 2, 2011, we will put into action a temporary freeze of vacation accrual and mandate the use of vacation days. Given that many of you have more than two weeks of vacation already accrued and the holiday months are traditionally a season when time off is scheduled, our hope is that this will be manageable and not create undue difficulty. 

Just what you want to see in your email in-box on the Friday before Labor Day weekend! This move is happening in the wake of the LAT's owner, Tribune, asking its bankruptcy court judge to authorize between $16.4 million and $42.5 million in — and unfortunately there's no other word for them — performance bonuses for company management. 

The obvious question arises: Given that the "company must reach 91 percent of its cash flow goal, or $450 million, for management to get $16.4 million in incentive bonuses under the proposed plan," according to the Chicago Tribune's report, how much is the whack to their vacation time that LAT staffers are being asked to take related to Trib managements' objectives? After all, if that 91 percent threshold is missed, management gets nada (assuming the bankruptcy judge OKs the request). And at this point, we're running out of 2011.

There really isn't any way to sugar-coat these kinds of decisions. It's not exactly Marxism, but it is a stark example of management versus labor — although the modern journalist may not feel quite the same kinship with the factory worker as his or her mid-20th-century counterpart. You make the numbers by making the numbers. And if you have to either give up or take your vacation to make the numbers work, then you do it and give thanks that you still have your job, in an LA economy that's fighting 12.4 percent unemployment and a profession that's endured a lot of pain in the past five years.

Back in February, again according to the Chicago Tribune, Tribune cut its estimate for 2011 cash flow to $497 million. Given the gloomy turn the economy has taken of late, there's a distinct possibility that Tribune might not reach the $450 million figure. I hasten to point out, however, that I'm just connecting possible dots here. 

A larger question is: Does Tribune continue to win the argument that it needs to pay bonuses to retain management talent. In the face of business conditions that seem to be splitting it into a broadcast division that's doing all right financially and a print division that's struggling — even thought its profit margins were in the double-digits before its parent company fumbled into bankruptcy after Sam Zell's failed takeover effort?

It's fair to ask whether Tribune management is managing for the future of a post-Chapter 11 business or trying to extract as much money as it can from an industry before massive structural change in the media business reduces yearly cash flow even more. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Minnaert