News & Opinion | September 14, 2022 1:16 pm

Why Are Over a Thousand “Times” Employees Refusing to Return to the Office?

They want salary increases. They've been given lunch boxes instead.

A shot of the entrance to The New York Times Building.
Almost a third of the publication's workforce is refusing to go back to the office.
Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

This past spring, The New York Times ran a piece titled: “Welcome Back to Work. Isn’t This Fun?” The lead image featured an anthropomorphic water cooler holding a bunch of balloons.

The very publication that has diligently set the stakes for 2022’s return to office (or RTO) battle — not-so-subtle CEOs trying to coax workers back under the auspices of Taco Tuesdays and free tote bags, pitted against employees who’ve adjusted to day-to-days with less time commuting and more time spent sleeping, exercising, playing with kids, and…you know, working — is now watching it play out within its own halls.

Or specifically: over Zoom, as over 1,000 among the Gray Lady’s labor force are as of now unwilling to return to Times offices. Management at the newspaper has maintained throughout this year that it supports a “hybrid work environment,” and employees are currently expected to spend at least three days in the office per week. But this week, an estimated 30% of the imprint’s workforce pledged to stay home in solidarity.

To RTO or not to RTO isn’t what has Times employees so upset — WFH is more of a leveraging tool here for disgruntled employees’ labor representatives (News Guild, Times Tech Guild and Wirecutter), in what’s been characterized as an “increasingly bitter contract dispute” between the unions and upper management.

The ire of Times employees went fully mainstream this week, when a video journalist revealed that they were all given branded lunch boxes, in an apparent effort to assuage their worries.

There’s a catch: the lunch boxes (which one source told The New York Post are “empty…and have no handles”) are only available to those who come into the office to retrieve them. In a head-scratching email obtained by Confider, the media trends newsletter at The Daily Beast, a Times executive wrote: “Our hope is [these lunch boxes] will be a connection point that brings together all of our colleagues around a common theme: lunchtime.”

Yeah. Oof. The clip is reminiscent of some leaked lines from tech CEOs, which made the rounds mid-summer. A refresher:

  • From the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet: “Moving forward, we need to be more entrepreneurial, working with greater urgency, sharper focus, and more hunger than we’ve shown on sunnier days.”
  • From Meta’s head of remote presence and engineering: “If a direct report is coasting or a low performer, they are not who we need; they are failing this company.”
  • From an executive at Axon Enterprise: “Right now I smell opportunity. Yes, winter’s coming. Now let’s embrace it.”

As bizarre as this masturbatory, C-suite rah rah is, none of it’s all that surprising when we hear it emanating from Silicon Valley or Wall Street. (Late last year, Morgan Stanley’s CEO said what most of the upper crust in his industry were thinking: “If you’re 21 to 35, you are nuts not to be in the office all the time.” By this summer, they’d succeeded in getting analysts and associates back to investment banks full-time.)

How could this sort of treatment occur at the New York Times though, which itself has so holistically charted the pros and cons and ebbs and flows of the RTO question? Well, all that reporting’s been done by the writers, not the executives. And the top brass there have a lot in common with the top brass anywhere else; it should come as little surprise that they’re convinced that all their employees need to be content in the year 2022 is a lively lunch hour.

But the real, concrete problem is that too many employees’ 2022 salaries (even those of their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters!) look way too similar to their 2020 salaries. The workers “are livid,” according to the Post and if at least some of their demands aren’t met — including an 8% raise, a cost-of-living increase of 5.25%, no mandatory RTO until July 2023, and indefinite WFH for those who are based remotely — a strike could be imminent.

At the moment, Times executives are still formalizing the matter of additional holidays for staff (they could codify Juneteenth, Indigenous Peoples Day and Veterans Day), but they also claim to have offered “contractual increases of 10 percent over the remaining two and a half years of the new contract.” That would appear to preclude any sort of cost-of-living increase, though that was likely a pie-in-the-sky ask from the Guild to begin with.

The bubbling anger at the Times is common throughout the media landscape, where “swag” is ubiquitous, but extra cash to pay mortgages, college tuitions or groceries is always hard to come by — as one reporter said, “I don’t need knick-knacks. I need a raise.” What makes this situation unique, though, is simply how well the Times is doing on the backs of its writers and creators, and how unwilling it’s been to share that wealth.

As a sports reporter told Confider: “The company has money and people are getting shares, stocks, dividends, and higher salaries, and the people who aren’t getting it are people who produce the thing.” He’s referring to packages that increased by a million or more for many executives at the top of the Times ladder in 2021, and the “$165 million” that was divvied “to shareholders in dividends and stock buybacks.”

And ultimately, while the RTO protest is certainly a method to capture the attention of the Times (and the rest of popular media), it also highlights an extra superpower that the WFH era has wrought. Your physical presence matters to managers; it can be used to curry favor or instigate change, not just to punch a clock. Besides, if the unions manage a win on relaxed RTO mandates, they’ll save workers thousands that would’ve been spent on gas or mass transit. Of course, those employees will still have to buy their own lunch boxes.