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An apology

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I MADE A GRAVE MISTAKE in the headline on the lead story in the November 25, 2010 edition of The Columbia Paper. The headline said: “Fired worker costs plenty” and the story made reference to the “firing” of an employee of the Town of Taghkanic Highway Department. The employee in question was not named in the story and he will not be identified here. The important fact is that he was never fired. He was laid off. The distinction is critical.

The headline and the part of the story that involved the employee’s situation were inaccurate, and on behalf of the paper and myself, I wish to tell him and our readers that I am deeply sorry for this error.

There’s no speculation, shading or nuance involved. The employee has a letter from the town highway superintendent that says he was laid off for lack of work.

People get fired either because they don’t do their jobs or because management has decided an individual must go, something that can still happen to people who, for example, advocate on behalf of efforts to unionize a workplace, even though there are laws meant to prevent that. By contrast, layoffs happen because businesses or government officials say they can’t afford the workers they have. Being laid off is a failure of management, not the worker who loses his job.

We hear a lot about unemployment rates, but maybe the better figure to keep in mind is that the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week that 9.5 million Americans are out of work right now, a number that all experts agree doesn’t account for the millions of people who have given up looking for work, run out of benefits or who have jobs that don’t pay the bills. If 9.5 million is too big a number to contemplate, think of it this way: the number of Americans officially listed as unemployed is equal to half the population of New York State.

These people have been clobbered by the recession; they aren’t out of work because they screwed up or suddenly got lazy or because, like Wall Street tycoons and traders, they figured out some easy way to get rich at the public trough. They simply got laid off.

If there’s any irony in this incident, it’s that I was laid off in February 2009 along with all my colleagues at The Independent newspaper. The company that owned that newspaper was on the brink of bankruptcy and was closing many of the smaller newspapers it owned in a desperate attempt to keep its creditor banks at bay. When the doors closed for good at The Independent, nobody wrote a headline saying I had been fired. But the demise of The Independent paved the way for the creation of this newspaper.

It’s small consolation to all of us who have been laid off that we have plenty of company or that we have joined the legions of people with pink slips in an honorable manner. If you have a job, you might find it hard to imagine how much effort it takes to remain upbeat when you’re looking for a new position and you hear day after day that, on average, there are five applicants for each opening… if you hear anything at all from prospective employers. But please keep in mind, people without work don’t want sympathy, they want a job.

This makes the Taghkanic headline and story all the more distressing. Online I have rewritten the headline and the story so that the article on our website now correctly states that the Highway Department worker was laid off. It mentions the worker at all only because the cost to the town of laying him off has affected the annual town budget. But even though the electronic version can be corrected, there is nothing I can do to correct the newsprint record except what I write here. I should have stood up for this worker who was laid off. Instead, I let him and our readers down.  

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