South Carolina’s Biggest Paper Forcing ‘Terrified’ Reporters Back to Office Even as Confirmed COVID Cases Rise

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

On the same day that South Carolina had its largest number of coronavirus deaths, the company that owns the Post & Courier had a message for the newspaper’s staff: You’re all coming back to the office next week.

When confronted about the decision, Evening Post Industries would not provide a concrete reason, seemingly dismissing staffers’ concerns about potential exposure to the virus as South Carolina’s increase in confirmed infections. And, in one instance, the publisher fired a staffer for effectively boosting criticism of their policy.

“People are terrified,” one staffer said, adding: “They’re asking us to risk our health and maybe our lives and they won’t even tell us why. It just seems cruel.” The Daily Beast spoke to a half-dozen Post & Courier insiders, all expressing similar sentiments and requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation from the publisher.

Buried on the third page of an internal weekly newsletter Evening Post Industries sent to all staff this week was a matter-of-fact decree that all employees at South Carolina’s largest newspaper must return to its offices full-time beginning Monday.

“All schedules will be back to normal beginning the week of June 1,” the note said, adding that staff could speak to the human-resources department if they were not able to return.

Top editors have not given a reason for the decision to return to work amid an ongoing pandemic. An HR representative explained to some concerned staff this week that the return order was a “business decision,” but would not elaborate. Employees were told in an email on Friday that they could continue to work from home only if they had a “health decision that places you or someone in your household at high risk.”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, executive editor Mitch Pugh said that the paper had followed “all federal, state and local regulations and guidance,” and pointed out that like many other news organizations, it was a designated essential workplace. 

“Like many essential workplaces, including other news organizations, we have had personnel working in the building throughout this period,” Pugh said. “We believe it is now reasonable for other employees to return to work. We will continue to monitor federal, state and local regulations and SC DHEC data moving forward to inform future decision-making and continue to take suggestions from our employees. Our company, which has not instituted COVID-related furloughs or layoffs, remains committed to serving our community as a designated essential workplace.”

The move is the latest in a series that have rattled the paper’s staff, who have repeatedly raised concerns about the news organization’s aggressive return-to-work strategy as the coronavirus continues to spread through the state.

Since its first reported case in March, South Carolina has reported more than 10,770 cases and at least 470 deaths. The state also marked two new grim milestones this week: the highest single-day death count (20 on Wednesday); and the highest single-day number of reported cases (331 on Friday). Experts fear a potential surge in the state as public activity resumes amid loosened social-distancing restrictions.

While forcing its employees back to a physical workspace, the Post & Courier has taken some public-health precautions in the main Charleston office. Management has revised the seating arrangement, installed sneeze-guard-like dividers between cubicles, placed hand sanitizer around the office, and provided staff with masks. In an email on Friday afternoon the company laid out new safety procedures, noting that contractors will be required to wear masks—though full-time staff were only asked to wear facial coverings “if you desire”—and that mandatory temperature checks would be required to enter the building. 

The company also acknowledged employee apprehension about Monday’s reopening. 

“We understand that many employees are concerned about safety as well as the changes to company policies and procedures that we have implemented,” Friday’s memo said. “It is important for all employees of Evening Post Industries to know that employee safety and wellbeing is and always will be a primary focus of our organization.”

But the company appears to be eager to move on from focusing on the crisis. Evening Post Industries, which owns the paper and operates several South Carolina health and real-estate companies, said it would no longer send around its weekly newsletter with coronavirus updates, and that it would resume on-site yoga and workout classes (with some social-distancing measures in place). And among one of the last pieces of advice the company offered staffers following Wednesday’s edict was a list of “10 Foods To Help Boost Your Immune System.”

This week’s return-to-work declaration isn’t the first time that Post & Courier management has charged ahead with plans to get staff back into the office.

In late April, the paper said at the end of a staff call that it would require employees to return to the office at least twice a week, a decision that managers scaled back a day later, requiring staff to instead come in once a week on staggered schedules.

Employees expressed alarm with the decision at the time, noting that the state’s outbreak did not seem to be abating. Several sent concerned letters to top editors, others requested days off on the days they were required to go into the office, and some even lamented anonymously about the policy to Poynter, a journalism-focused media organization.

The resultant Poynter article, which chronicled the discontent among P&C staffers over the one-day-a-week office policy, led to Evening Post Industries firing one newspaper employee—a move that outraged staffers say was a direct attempt to stifle any criticism of the publisher’s policies.

Earlier this month, one Post & Courier reader shared the Poynter article on the newspaper’s subscriber Facebook group, which is lightly moderated by the paper’s staff to prevent any of the group’s 1,000-plus users from spamming with ads or hate speech. An audience engagement editor approved the post, thus allowing members of the group to see the article and comment.

According to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast, P&C executive editor Pugh quietly deleted the post and called the engagement editor into the office to be fired, which the company ascribed to the editor’s approving of an “inappropriate reader post.”

The Post & Courier is one of the only major publications in America to return full-time to its offices amid the outbreak. Most national media organizations, especially those based in New York, have delayed a return to offices until at least after Labor Day. 

Indeed, employees at the paper have pointed out that P&C’s rival McClatchy-operated local newspapers aren’t asking staff to return to work until at least the late summer. 

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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