Less than three years after The Associated Press relocated its Chicago office from the downtown business center to a neighborhood featuring a pawn shop, flophouse and federal prison, the company said it will no longer pay taxi fare for staffers who work late night and early morning shifts.
The News Media Guild is investigating options and is preparing a response.
Even as the city becomes more dangerous, Central Region editor Tom Berman wrote in an email dated May 17 that AP would no longer pay overnight cab fares because of budget issues.
“As you know, we have been reimbursing cab fare to and from home for employees during certain hours,” Berman wrote. “As you are aware, our budgets have been significantly trimmed, and we are unable to continue to offer this accommodation, needing to devote our expense budget to covering the news.” The policy is effective Monday, June 6, he wrote.
The Guild has asked AP to rescind the decision, pointing to Section 2 of Article 31 of the contract, which states: “The Employer will, within limits of its direct control, ensure employees’ safe passage on streets, parking lots and other areas near the office.”
The AP recently withdrew a rewrite of the travel and expense policy after the Guild filed a grievance when the company tried to delete language stating that safety is the priority for staffers traveling on business. The grievance began when managers told some photographers they couldn’t rent SUVs in a tropical storm unless the hurricane were a category 2 or higher, presumably because of the cost.
The taxi fare decision comes as the murder rate in Chicago has soared. The New York Times wrote that as of the morning of May 27, “homicides in Chicago were up 52 percent in 2016, compared with the same period a year ago, and shootings had increased by 50 percent, though the pace of violence had slowed in recent weeks, the police said.”
At least 233 people had been killed as of May 27th. The murder rate in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city, is higher than that of New York and Los Angeles, it said.
In response to emails from several staffers about their concerns, Berman said paying taxi fares has become “a prohibitively expensive accommodation” and “that at most other businesses, it’s the responsibility of employees to get to or from work, regardless of hours.”
It’s demoralizing that the company would put a price on staffers’ safety, said Guild President Martha Waggoner. “AP needs to find a way to cover the news and protect the staffers most vulnerable to threats _ those who arrive early and leave late,” she said.
The practice of paying taxi fares in Chicago dates to at least July 6, 2009, when then Central Region editor David Scott sent an email saying that AP would pay fares for anyone whose shift began after 10 p.m. or whose shift ended between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
“And at any time of day or night, if you are en route to or from work and feel that for personal safety you need to shift from public transit to a taxi, you are welcome to do so,” he wrote. “There should be no reason that you ever place yourself at risk. Be safe and always _ and take a cab without hesitation if that’s best for you. All that I ask is that you file the expenses in a timely manner.”
Scott reiterated the practice in January 2012, when he advised staffers that paying taxi fares “is a safety measure, and I ask you respect the intent. Be safe, but don’t indulge.”
While staffers haven’t indulged, forcing them to drive into the office could cost them as much as $390 per month to park in one of the garages recommended by the AP. Or, for $265 per month, they could get a spot in the parking garage next door to the pawn shop.