PROVIDENCE -- Metro Managing Editor Tom Heslin testified today that from 1996 to October 2001, most of the reporters assigned to the "night cops" beat in the newsroom were drawn from the bureaus, and typically worked the job for about a year.
Under cross-examination in the final day of the Journal's trial on 20 unfair-labor-practice charges, Heslin acknowledged that most of those reporters were young and had limited experience.
The National Labor Relations Board alleges that veteran reporter Karen Ziner was forced into the night job in October 2001 in retaliation for union activity.
The trial ended early this afternoon after testimony from Heslin and Human Resources Director Thomas McDonough. There were no closing arguments. Instead, Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol ordered lawyers for the company and the NLRB to file briefs by Dec. 10. A decision is expected by the spring.
Heslin testified that the person who previously held the nightbeat job, Michael Corkery, had expertise on Afghanistan and was asked to cover issues related to terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks. But he acknowledged that Corkery has since been covering stories unrelated to Sept. 11.
"Is it fair to say," asked NLRB lawyer Joseph Griffin, "that the stories he covered Ms. Ziner could cover?"
"Yes," Heslin said.
Heslin, whose testimony was often halting and hesitant, said that he never saw reporter Morgan McVicar circulating a petition on behalf of Ziner in the newsroom, and never discussed the petition with either McVicar or Executive Editor Joel Rawson.
Griffin asked Heslin whether, in August 2001, he was aware that the Guild had filed an unfair-labor-practices charge regarding the Journal's refusal to allow Ziner to use taxicab vouchers outside Providence.
"I knew there was an issue with the taxicabs. Where it was with the charges, I don't know," Heslin said.
"The decision to reassign Ms. Ziner -- was it yours alone?" Griffin asked. After a pause, Heslin said, "Yeah." Then he added, "I ran it by Mr. Rawson."
Under further questioning by Journal lawyer Richard Perras, Heslin said that after (reporters) Lee Dykas and Tom Morgan left the night cops job, "what we decided to do was make an assignment that would not be permanent. ... We did go to the people on the state staff who were proven, very good reporters, who we knew we wanted to develop."
But sometime in fall 2001, Heslin said, "I was told I had to fill that nightbeat job from within that work group. I wasn't going to get anyone from the state staff to come in." Heslin said that directive came from Rawson.
Asked by Perras about any changes in staff size underlying that directive, Heslin mentioned the recent buyout, along with continuing concerns about the staffing at the bureaus. (The buyout -- in which employees aged 55 and older were offered early-retirement packages -- did not begin until more than a week after Ziner was transferred.) Heslin later acknowledged that he also felt the newsroom was understaffed.
Judge Kocol then posed several questions to Heslin. He asked whether Corkery had been sent to Afghanistan, whether his reporting on the subject has diminished, and what else he has been doing. Heslin said that Corkery spent about three weeks in Afghanistan, that now "we're getting him some training" to cover the military in the Middle East, and that he had been covering the election campaign.
Kocol asked whether Ziner's assignment to the nightbeat is permanent.
"We haven't discussed that, but I don't imagine it would be permanent," Heslin replied.
Asked how he would go about deciding when or whether to change her assignment, Heslin said. "I don't know. I imagine at some point there will be -- we, I just don't know. We haven't talked about that. . . . It would come up if we felt we needed Karen's skills in some other place."
The judge asked Heslin to describe his conversations with Rawson about assigning first McVicar-- who quit after he was assigned to the nightbeat -- and then Ziner to that job. Heslin said they were brief discussions in which Heslin told Rawson his decision, and Rawson approved it.
"There was no conversation," Kocol asked, "as to whether it was wise to assign an experienced reporter . . . whether someone else would be better?"
"We didn't dwell on it as I recall," Heslin replied.
The company entered into evidence every Page One and Page B-1 story that Ziner has written since being assigned to the night cops beat.
Human Resources Director McDonough then provided additional testimony on the case of Michael Monti, a promotions specialist who was fired retroactively when he asked to return from medical leave. The NLRB alleges that the firing was a unilateral change in medical leave policy because in the past workers on medical leave were terminated only after reaching the end of their contractually allowed leave time.
Monti was eligible for two years leave. McDonough testified that when Monti contacted him asking to return to work after 20 months on medical leave, he reviewed Monti's medical file and concluded that his leave was unauthorized.
He said his decision was based on the facts that Monti had been denied a worker's compensation claim, had been denied long term disability payments, and had not updated documentation of his disability for more than year.
McDonough wrote to Monti saying that he had been terminated effective November 2001, one year after he went on leave.
Under questioning by NLRB lawyer Elizabeth Vorro, McDonough acknowledged that Monti had provided a note from a medical professional confirming his disability when he went out on leave, and that the contract's only requirement for medical leave was that medical certification of disability.
He also acknowledged that Monti's name continued to appear on payroll lists and Monti continued to carry Journal group medical insurance throughout his leave, indicating the company regarded him as an employee. The company never asked Monti to submit to evaluation by its own doctor, McDonough said.