The Tragic Consequences of an Employer’s Broken Promise

Robert Douglas collapsed and died while he was about to let his two mixed-breed dogs out the back door of his modest brick home in St. Louis. Two days later, on Dec. 16, relatives found his body on the kitchen floor. He was 59.

Robert had cared for his two rescued dogs, and he had done the same for his friends and colleagues at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he had worked for nearly 40 years.

He was to the newsroom as Radar was to “M*A*S*H”: the guy we went to when we needed help.

Robert made sure we got what we needed to do our jobs, especially when the bosses said we couldn’t.

“Robert, they won’t give me a cell phone,” one reporter recalled recently at Robert’s memorial service.

“You can have a cell phone,” Robert said.

We thought he could do just about anything.

Robert was a clerk. He was one of several dozen support staff who worked behind the scene and were largely anonymous. They answered the phones, helped research stories and kept the newsroom’s machines working.

They are nearly all gone now, bought out or laid off.

The Post-Dispatch laid off Robert in October 2008. He was a member of the St. Louis Newspaper Guild (now the United Media Guild) and made an annual union wage of $39,936.

The severance package under the union contract gives Robert and other retirees health insurance.

That was important because Robert had diabetes and high blood pressure. While he was employed, he was able to stay healthy because he had good medical care.

The contract says retiree health insurance is free and for life. The company used that perk to induce more than 100 newsroom employees to take early retirement in 2005 and 2007. Now we know that the company didn’t plan to honor its promises.

Robert wanted to keep working. But when he lost his job, his union contract eased the way with a severance of $50,688 before taxes, based upon his years of employment.

He used the money to pay off his mortgage, and spent many hours fixing up his house. He told his three grown children that if anything happened to him, he wanted them to have a place to live that was free of debt.

Robert’s monthly Post-Dispatch pension was just $366, and he had no other income. He was too young for Medicare and was turned down for Medicaid. Amazingly, his modest income allowed him to pay for food and utilities while continuing to help people less fortunate.

At the memorial service, friends recounted how Robert regularly helped needy people on the street. Several times a week, he gave $3 for bus fare to an injured man unable to speak.

On Nov. 19, 2010, Lee Enterprises, owners of the Post-Dispatch, notified Robert by letter that he would have to pay 100 percent of his health insurance premiums.

The company would take the premiums out of his monthly pension check. But the pension wasn’t enough to cover the full $580 monthly premium. Robert would owe the company an additional $214 each month. He would no longer get a pension. He would have no income.

The letter from Lee said that if Robert was late in paying, he would lose his insurance and wouldn’t get it back.

On March 18, 2011, Robert signed a letter canceling his company health insurance because “I can’t afford to pay for it.”

After that, Robert resorted to a series of free clinics with limited success. One physician put Robert on a drug he had tried years earlier with terrible side effects, recalled his daughter, Erica Douglas.

In the end, Robert sometimes was able to get insulin and sometimes not. He got some hand-me-down medicine from diabetic friends.

Robert told his daughter early in December that the insulin he had then wasn’t working. He said he would go to a doctor.

But he didn’t – “he had no money,” Erica Roberts said.

Robert was trying to save money for an operation for Creamy, the older of his two aging dogs. She needed a tumor removed.

When Robert didn’t answer the phone, four family members went to his home and found his body. In the bedroom, they found Creamy dead underneath Robert’s bed. Nearby, they found Cookie, Robert’s other dog, alive but frightened.

Did Lee Enterprises kill Robert when it took away his insurance? Not directly, of course.

Lee President Mary Junck told stock analysts in 2005 when the Davenport company bought the Post-Dispatch that she would end retiree health insurance. But Junck and the company’s board had to know the likely results of cutting off health care for retirees who might not be able to get replacement insurance.

The Guild is in federal court fighting to get back retiree health insurance, and has spent more than $250,000 in legal fees, according to Shannon Duffy, the union’s business manager.

For its part, Lee has taken the unusual step of suing its own retirees. It was a preemptive strike aimed at discouraging a lawsuit against the company. Undeterred, a group of retirees recently sued Lee for fraud.

While the issue is tied up in court, more retirees will die, rejoin the job market or give up. Lee’s officers and directors have nothing personal to lose. But what if the retirees change strategy and sue to hold them accountable as individuals – and seek damages including their salaries, homes, bank accounts and 401(k)s?

Robert didn’t get a news obituary in the Post-Dispatch, and the public never would have heard of him if columnist Bill McClellan hadn’t written that Robert “was a victim of our times – caught somewhere between serious health-care reform and the old paternalistic way of companies.”

I wrote Robert’s obit for our in-house Intranet, including two paragraphs explaining how the company had taken away his health insurance. A newsroom manager edited that out saying, “Those two paragraphs really stick out.”

Yes, they did. They still do.