May 30th, the last day

photo by Jeff Nicholls

For 13 years I was a Post-Tribune newspaper photographer. I was a guild member almost immediately, and excited to join.  I loved my job. I loved getting to really knowing my area, my community.  Northwest Indiana is a great area to cover; there is so much diversity.  There is urban, rural, suburban, the lake and the dunes, farmland, steel mills, and so much more.  The people are just as diverse and I feel privileged to be present for so many important milestones in their lives.  To be invited into people’s homes to take pictures, not just into their schools, offices and public spaces, but their homes.  That is a true privilege. 

The layoff came as a real shock. While there has been a general cloud of uncertainty and wariness for the recent past (how many?) years, it was still a shock.  As did my fellow photographers, I got the email about  5 pm May 29th, my 41st birthday, for a mandatory photo staff meeting downtown. Instant worry.  Immediate phone calls, emails and texts to try to find out what the meeting was about. No one knew. I carpooled with our remaining P-T photo staff, guild member Jeff Nicholls and photo editor Andy Lavalley, (we were a staff of nine or ten when I started in April 2000).  We arrived early to the small, grey, windowless Holiday Inn conference room, where we mingled with other photographers, some, many, whom I hadn’t met before.  Sure would have been nice to have had an actual company-wide photo staff meeting to get to know people, minus the getting laid off part. The meeting started and I don’t even remember who the third person was at the front of the room.  As soon as Jim Kirk began talking I noticed Ted Rilea behind him.  I have sat across the table from Rilea as an alternate member of the Chicago Newspaper Guild bargaining committee trying to do my part to settle the contract.  I sat across from him at a much smaller table in years past as a member of the Gary Guild’s bargaining committee before we joined forces with CNG.  So, seeing Rilea there meant only one thing: we were getting laid off.  Kirk read his very few sentences. The only part I really remember is “eliminate the entire photo staff,” which I quickly sent to the guild bargaining unit.  With that, we were pointed to different corners of the room for our perspective HR people.  We were asked to turn in our press badges, our email cut off as we talked with HR.  Jeff, Andy and I were among the last to leave after getting more detailed Indiana versions of insurance information. So, while some photographers went to the Billy Goat, we wandered toward the parking garage, then veered to look for an open bar at 10:30 in the morning. We send many thanks to O’Leary’s which wasn’t open yet.  But a kind and sympathetic bartender invited us in when we told him we had just been laid off.  We plan to go back for a reunion of sorts some day.

As the reality of the lay off began to sink in, my first concern, and one I’m still sorting out a week later, is health insurance.  I spent the next day, that Friday, making calls to all my family’s doctors, dentists, eye doctors, etc. to make appointments before my insurance runs out at the end of June.  A pleasant discovery is that people will fit you in or make room for an appointment when you tell them you just got laid off and your insurance runs out in a month.  COBRA is there, of course, but it is prohibitively expensive.  Even more than I imagined. My husband’s job doesn’t offer insurance.  He does the good work as director of a small, non-profit, social service/emergency aid agency and being the only full-time employee, there isn’t insurance.  But not having insurance for our family of four, isn’t really an option.  In addition to our 11-year-old son, we have an 8-year-old daughter.  She receives I.V. treatments at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis every 6 weeks to increase her bone density.  She has brittle bone disease (osteogenesis imperfecta), though the mildest form.  Some of you probably saw at the wonderful and successful picket in front of the S-T yesterday, that she is perfectly active and lives a very normal life.  The treatments seem to be working their magic so far, but they are expensive.  Heck, they were expensive with insurance, so figuring out this insurance situation is a necessity.

I have made many friends at the Post-Tribune and in the Guild that will last beyond my employment and for that I am grateful.  I am very proud of our Gary unit members I have worked alongside for all these years.  I am also so happy to have felt a part of the bigger picture since we joined forces with CNG.  As an alternate on the bargaining committee, I feel fortunate to have represented my Gary unit and the Chicago  Newspaper Guild as a whole in the fight to gain back the wages and respect that we, you all, so deserve.  I must pay homage to Dave Bartman, whom I consider my union mentor.  While I did marry into a strong union family (go Wolfs!), I got my union training from Dave, a fellow photographer who passed away several years ago. Dave managed to get a usual 100% participation rate from our photo staff at nearly every guild meeting and function.  He instilled in us a strong union belief that it is important and necessary to work for the whole, not the individual, and to fight for what is right.  The only time I have cried since this whole mass layoff thing is when I think of all the guild brothers and sisters that took a hit for me in the past.  I survived this long thanks to those that volunteered to save my job, including Dave. Thank you.

Stay strong.

In solidarity,

Stephanie Dowell


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