How Not to Do Labor Journalism 101

There were a thousand ways to tell this story, and NPR chose the worst one.

NPR’s Morning Edition aired a story today premised on the idea that the $600/week unemployment benefit included in the last coronavirus relief bill—virtually the only part of the entire law that wasn’t a big, wet kiss to corporate America—singlehandedly killed a Harlan, KY, woman’s cafe.

"We basically have this situation where it would be a logical choice for a lot of people to be unemployed," the woman, Sky Marietta, told NPR. The story goes on:

But in her Kentucky coffee shop, Marietta wasn't looking for someone to cover the cost of idling her employees. She wanted them to keep working. Unfortunately, she says, the $10 to $15 an hour they'd make serving coffee is no match for the new jobless benefits.

"We have these lovely baristas," Marietta said. "They're hardworking individuals. But literally this is the best possible pay of their lives they could possibly get, to be unemployed."

Scan the story, and you’ll note that NPR didn’t quote a single worker (or former worker) at the cafe. Scan the cafe’s website, and you’ll find a blog post from the owner herself saying it was her decision to lay off her workers, something which oddly doesn’t appear anywhere in the NPR story. From the post (emphasis mine):

The mind boggles at all the sensible ways that money could have been better spent. What if FPUC just helped maintain previous pay? What if it gave bonuses to frontline workers? What if it actually reimbursed business owners for every dollar they spent on payroll? This list goes on and on.

And that brings us to the bind that we were facing with our own employees. Right now, we are asking our baristas to continue to put themselves at risk for a pay of around $300 per week, when if they were laid off they could be receiving over $700 per week. Why would we do that? We care deeply about our team and started our businesses to make their lives and our community better, not worse. We are going to do the sensible thing and lay them off until there is an equitable incentive for workers in essential businesses and we see the impact of a program that will allow businesses to continue to operate.

Also not touched upon in the NPR story is the fact that people filing for unemployment in Kentucky (and every state) are going weeks without hearing a word from the state; that over 115,000 people applied for unemployment in the state last week and over 400,000 have applied since the economy crashed; or that the state is only able to process 13,000 claims per day and the continued hemorrhaging of jobs is only making the backlog worse.

Nor does NPR disclose that even in a place like Harlan where the cost of living is much lower than a major American city, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Harlan was $523 per month as of April 2018—that is, nearly half the monthly income of someone who makes $300 a week as a barista.

In other words, read the NPR story, and you’ll get the impression that Lindsey Graham was right all along: a bunch of greedy workers are taking advantage of the CARES Act to get a bigger payday than they would by risking their health and that of their loved ones in order to make lattes.

Take five minutes to look beyond the NPR story and you’ll find that the coronavirus and social distancing requirements killed a business that was surviving by severely underpaying its workers, and those workers—if they can manage to apply for unemployment in the first place—thankfully have a mechanism in place to help keep their heads above water until the end of July.

NPR very rarely reports out a political story that doesn’t at least try to get comment from both Democrats and Republicans. How is it possible, then, that the same outlet can publish labor stories like this one without even talking to workers?

There were a thousand ways to tell the story of this coffeeshop: How small businesses got screwed by bigger companies in applying for loans. How the government should have decided to cover 100 percent of payroll and effectively become the economy for as long as the pandemic lasts. Or in lieu of that, how the pandemic is going to be the final bullet for well-intentioned “economic redevelopment” efforts in areas whose structural economic problems (in eastern Kentucky’s case, the lack of a long-term replacement for the coal industry) can’t be fixed by a tidier Main Street with small businesses that offer WiFi.

Instead, NPR chose to parrot right-wing talking points, blaming workers and a necessary, emergency expansion of the safety net. Another resounding win for the liberal media.

Image via Mike_Fleming/Flickr/Creative Commons