Some of you might have noticed an article in The Stranger this month about a disgruntled former employee of the Tacoma Weekly, Rachelle Abellar. The Stranger ran this article, and its ridiculous headline, without contacting the Tacoma Weekly and published only her side of the story, which we have been able to dispute, backed up by emails, text messages and inter-office memos.
Abellar was given every opportunity to air her grievances at any time during her employment. She claims that our company did not pay her medical benefits when in fact we did pay and have a copy of the check to prove it. In February 2017, our bookkeeper at the time brought in a new payroll company that offered healthcare benefits. The Tacoma Weekly has never provided healthcare in the past, other than a monthly stipend on employees’ paychecks for those who have been with us for more than two years. We signed up for this new healthcare plan, which turned out to be a disaster. In the first payroll period, we were unaware that we would have to pay the amount of cost upfront for the services and therefore we opted to go back to our in-house payroll system.
We also audited Abellar’s payroll file and found that she is completely up to date including being paid for her last day of employment, Sept 20, 2018. Abellar decided to leave our company and pursue her already existing freelance company, producing books and graphic services for clients. We often let her work on this on company time to help her avoid the hassles of traffic in the afternoon. On her last day, we invited her to come back and meet with us because she was interested in doing work for us as a freelancer. When she approached us about leaving, we talked to her about going to work for us as a freelance graphic artist and she agreed. To date, we have yet to hear from her.
Tacoma Weekly publisher John Weymer, our production manager and our attorney have reached out to Abellar many times to handle this matter, but she has not responded. We contacted Washington State Labor and Industries prior to Abellar filing a complaint that we have yet to see. Because of her use of The Stranger to attack our company, we have to take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves. We’ve been in business for more than 32 years and have a long track record of being a well-established business with multiple employees coming and going, with most staying for a very long time.
We believe that Abellar became hostile after she applied for unemployment and stated on the form that she quit her job. Her unemployment benefits were rejected not because we had an error in our reporting her wages to the state, but by the sheer fact that she quit in order to be self-employed. We have since corrected and amended our unemployment forms and she can reapply for unemployment at any time. Legal services for a small company to afford are almost out of the question. But in this case, we have hired an attorney to deal with the false rhetoric and statements produced by her and other people.
Tacoma Weekly takes care of its employees. That’s how we’ve been able to survive these three-plus decades. Without hard working staff, the paper could not exist. And we’ve had some great people working here, like Kathleen Merryman. Merryman made a solid name for herself in Tacoma as a compassionate and super talented writer, and we were thrilled when she came to work with us. Sadly, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to leave our family but we continued to take care of her, paying her for a year afterward even though she no longer worked here. We just wanted her to be well.
The same with Larry LaRue, another highly respected Tacoma writer who came to work with us. When his health problems made it impossible for him to continue, we kept writing him paychecks anyway because we loved him so much. And when current editor Matt Nagle’s father passed away and he had to help his grieving mother adjust, Weymer gave him an open-ended period of time to travel back east and take care of his mom. Weymer ended up paying him for six weeks of absence such that Nagle never had to worry about things like being able to pay rent so that he wouldn’t be evicted from his apartment while he was away. These are just a few stories of how Weymer gives to help.
We find it odd that The Stranger would pick this topic, and write such a harsh headline, when this newspaper has its own problems. Please note at the end of this story a selection of multiple complaints about The Stranger not paying their writers, posted in response to the article The Stranger did on us. Take this one, for example: “…a piece like this by The Stranger is like Harvey Weinstein doing investigative reporting to expose sexual abuse.” How dare The Stranger point its finger when they have so much to answer to themselves?
Once The Stranger story broke, we invited the young writer, Lester Black, to visit our office and learn about what we do. It quickly became clear that he was bound and determined to be the champion of a few ex-Tacoma Weekly employees who have an axe to grind. We’ve gone through a lot of employees over those decades, most of them great ones and, yes, a few bad ones like any other company.
Some of the folks that replied to the reporter after The Stranger story broke include Josh Rizeberg, Miguel Douglas and Stacy Emerson. Rizeberg is known as a troublemaker around town, harassing elected officials at City Hall and most recently making an angry and threatening outburst at Weymer last Saturday at Stadium Thriftway. Employees there were able to provide us with their video recording of the incident, and witnesses were all around. During his rant he threatened Weymer’s life, yelling, “I‘m going to kill you, you sick old man!”
Rizeberg has a reputation for stealing. An example: During his employment with us as a delivery driver, the Tacoma Weekly shared a warehouse with a tire company and Toys for Tots of Pierce County. Rizeberg was caught by Toys for Tots, operated by members of the U.S. Marine Corps and Crime Stoppers of Tacoma/Pierce County, in the building after hours removing property that was not his, including toys. He got into many confrontations with the Marines, volunteers and employees of the tire company.
When Rizeberg was finally released from employment at the Tacoma Weekly, his request for unemployment was declined. Months later, he submitted a claim to Washington State Labor and Industries after collaborating with a small group of ex-employees trying to sabotage the Tacoma Weekly through an online bullying campaign. We have decided to turn this matter with Rizeberg over to our attorney to handle possible claims of libel but also to pursue a civil case against Rizeberg based on his work record of having ghost employees paid that were actually his family members who never worked here and, as a delivery driver, dumping Tacoma Weekly bundles into dumpsters and instructing other drivers to do the same. Rizeberg was fired with a police escort out of our building.
Miguel Douglas came to work for us at a time when we were hurting for an I.T. director. He boasted of his ability to help us rebuild our website and get our I.T. department in shape. Not only did he constantly fail to show up to work during his short period of time here, he completely shut down our I.T. department and locked us out of our website until we could hire a company to fix it. He removed and destroyed information on our server and there were other items missing from the office as well. We had great hopes for Douglas. We wanted him to take over the Puyallup Tribal News, which we were publishing at the time, as it had been our plan to give the Tribal News back to the tribe so that we could focus more on the Tacoma Weekly. Douglas has been paid in full and has no claims against this company.
Stacy Emerson is another former employee who complained to The Stranger even though her brief employment ended here more than 18 years ago. Emerson claimed that our publisher was aggressive toward her, but he didn’t even remember this person until he was reminded by The Stranger writer. Emerson has a reputation for causing trouble and the charges that she alleged against our publisher were false. A restraining order that she filed for after her employment here ended was not issued. Tacoma Weekly provided ample witnesses and written testimonies to prove to the court that a restraining order was not necessary. Emerson had some office equipment that she wanted to keep and this was her way of doing that.
If you know these people, please weigh in. Email us and tell us the good things and bad things. We’d be very interested in others’ experiences with these individuals.
Stranger reporter Black said that there was a “theme” of past employees saying that Weymer was physically aggressive toward them. Tacoma Weekly had a bad group of employees when we started to downsize late last year and move more toward the internet, and this led to some of the let-go employees posting false accusations and bad propaganda on the internet, some saying that Weymer is violent, which is a joke. We can assure everyone that past and present employees can attest to the opposite. In fact, it is Weymer who has been the target of violent threats and online bullying. Weymer has never even spanked his kid. He says that if he had to hunt for his food, he’d be a vegetarian. He has never raised a hand to an employee and never would. He is not that kind of person.
To our loving readers and loyal advertisers, we thank you sincerely for your support. Your readership is invaluable to us. Tacoma Weekly is among a very small number of family-owned, local newspapers still in existence. Large corporations think about dollars – we think about our readers – our neighbors. Our dedicated staff of writers, artists and marketing specialists are here to serve the great city of Tacoma and the people who live here. We look forward to the years ahead, as The City of Destiny – and the Tacoma Weekly – continue to flourish together.
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Reader feedback to The Stranger:
Sounds like when The Stranger didn’t pay Ansel Herz for the reporting work he did for The Stranger, by calling him an intern, while they benefited from his work writing stories. When is Keck going to write him a check and do a public mia culpa?
I can personally attest that the application process is a time-sucking headache. I signed up back when I was an unpaid intern here at The Stranger.
When is Savage going to get Keck to repay the public taxpayers all the public benefits his low wage employeee collected? When is Lester going to write a story about all that?
The Tacoma shade in that photo caption is so lame and just proves to me (again) how provincial people who live in Seattle can be. I’m from Chicago, an actual big city, and lived in Portland and Seattle for 15 years. For the last 2 1/2 I have lived in Tacoma because it’s cheaper and allowed us to productively cash in on the equity of the tiny, shitty house we owned in Seattle. I now own 3 properties and my husband and I have made a nice life for ourselves with less stress, more disposable income and more friends than we ever had in Seattle. “Seattle is cool and Tacoma is trashy” is the thought process of people who need to justify to themselves why they live in a city they can’t afford and that increasingly gives zero fucks about them and their needs. Seattle is a great city, don’t get me wrong, but I will take a balanced life in a small, regional city that still feels like I have the ability affect positively for myself and other residents any day.
The Stranger is quite rich for posting this article. Man someone post a list of all the unpaid interns at The Stranger over the past 20 years, how many hours those poor little white kids (I think they were all white with one or two exceptions) and how much money The Stranger would need to make them whole?
And the argument that “it was legal at the time” is a bullshit excuse
Except that is wasn’t legal at the time. It was just as illegal then, as it is now. So a piece like this by The Stranger, is like Harvey Weinstein doing investigative reporting to expose sexual abuse.
When Keck writes a check, with interest, to all those interns, and does a public mia culpa, then The Stranger can credibly start reporting on wage theft, minimum wage, living wage. Once it does that, then, and only then, will it have the credibility to report on those issues.
Hey! Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and pay for a lawyer to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of past Stranger interns? Once you do that, then and only then, will you have the credibility to bitch about these issues.
Interns, under Washington Law, ARE PAID EMPLOYEES. A for-profit organization, may not have unpaid interns, under Washington Law (and Federal Law, if you want to go look at the parallel ruling of the USDOL). So no matter where your business is located in the 50 States, you can’t not pay someone for doing something of value to your business by simply having them be enrolled in school somewhere and calling them an intern. It is how business people like Keck, try and slip out of paying people for their labor, while they have their non-living wage staff write about other business people stealing wages, pay wages so low that public benefits are required, etc.
You think its wrong for this Tacoma publisher to not pay workers what they are owned. We agree. But why do you think its OK for Keck to do the same thing with his publication? The result is the same, the unlawfulness is the same, just the mechanism and rationalization for the wage theft is slightly different.
Only one of those past interns has standing to file suit. Nobody else can. But you deflect. Why is it OK for Keck to not pay people what he is legally required to, but not OK for the publisher in Tacoma to do the same thing?
“I don’t actually want to do anything that might result in punishing someone for doing something allegedly illegal – because then I couldn’t keep bitching about it.”
Get cracking! Google those interns! Set up a meeting, hire them a lawyer and help them right this wrong. If you really, truly, care about them you’ll do something about it. Otherwise you’re just, oh what did your pal Franklin call it? Oh yes! Virtue signaling.
Lester. If you are the one that wrote the caption under the picture then you need to get out of your hipster bubble. Find someone who owns a car, and travel outside the confines of the cesspool that Seattle has become. Tacoma has cleaned up quite nicely. Ain’t perfect but very acceptable. Also, soy is available for lattes and everything.
The reporting on other people’s wage theft sort of loses something if you aren’t remedying your own and publicly acknowledging the past error. Be the change, you want to see Mr. Keck. In both cases, its a crappy day for the workers concerned when the only way its going to get addressed, is if they file a complaint with L & I (who will seek wages only, not the benefits) or they have to risk thousands in legal fees on the bet that the respondent isn’t a financial turnip.