Washingtonian staff revolts after CEO strongly suggests they’ll lose jobs if they don’t get butts back in office

Staffers at The Washingtonian magazine pushed back hard on the publication’s CEO after she appeared to threaten them with a change in job status that would see them lose benefits like health insurance if they refused to return to the office.

Like employees of many companies, Washingtonian staffers have been working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but as it wants, CEO Cathy Merrill is pushing for them to get back into the office to resume normal operations.

But the staffers apparently aren’t ready to oblige just yet.

“Like many of my fellow small-business owners, I am excited about the prospect of returning to in-person work but am struggling with when and how to safely reopen our office,” wrote Merrell in a Thursday opinion piece for the Washington Post, going on to address her employees.

“But also like my peers, I am concerned about the unfortunately common office worker who wants to continue working at home and just go into the office on occasion,” she added, going on to suggest that if staffers did not want to return to in-house work, they could face the possibility of being reclassified as independent contractors, with resulting losses of benefits like paid time off and health insurance.

“While some employees might like to continue to work from home and pop in only when necessary, that presents executives with a tempting economic option the employees might not like,” she wrote, ahead of listing some of the additional costs of employing people as paid staff rather than as contractors.

“I estimate that about 20 percent of every office job is outside one’s core responsibilities — ‘extra.’ It involves helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday — things that drive office culture,” Merrell wrote.

“If the employee is rarely around to participate in those extras, management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’ Instead of receiving a set salary, contractors are paid only for the work they do, either hourly or by appropriate output metrics,” she continued.

“That would also mean not having to pay for health care, a 401(k) match and our share of FICA and Medicare taxes — benefits that in my company’s case add up roughly to an extra 15 percent of compensation,” the CEO wrote. “Not to mention the potential savings of reduced office space and extras such as bonuses and parking fees.”

Merrell’s column lead several staffers to express their disapproval online, cutting and pasting the following statement into tweets: “As members of the Washingtonian editorial staff, we want our CEO to understand the risks of not valuing our labor. We are dismayed by Cathy Merrill’s public threat to our livelihoods. We will not be publishing today.”

Other users, including many journalists, tweeted their support of the Washingtonian staffers.

“Cathy Merrill, I worked from home for years as an outside sales rep/manager. I mentored 9 sales reps from my home, assisted many of my co-workers (as they did me), arranged bday celebrations, showers, etc. I was also the #1 in sales for my company for several yrs. You’re awful,” one user wrote.

“Standing with you. You are a great editor and have nurtured many,” another user wrote in response to O’Sullivan’s stock tweet.

“I am *floored* by this op-ed by a media CEO. But the particularly awful part is the second screenshot here,” New York Times writer Sopan Deb wrote.

The backlash sparked an apology from Merrell.

“I have assured our team that there will be no changes to benefits or employee status. I am sorry if the op-ed made it appear like anything else,” she told The Daily Beast, adding that more than anything she is concerned “about larger, less personal businesses and how that may affect our country.”

“That is precisely why I wrote the piece,” she said. “Of course, when we come back to the office, we will do so in a measured, safe, well-thought-out way that complies the best scientific advice—both because that’s the law, and because I care deeply about every person who makes up Washingtonian.”

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Jon Dougherty

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