RUTLAND — A multimedia sales representative at the Rutland Herald who raised questions about her paycheck was fired Friday, the latest controversy at the financially struggling newspaper that the owners are trying to sell.
Valerie Broughton, who has worked at the Herald for two years, said she spoke up after her check had not appeared in her account as it normally does nor was the pay stub on her desk when she arrived at work. In the past several weeks, other Herald employees have had their checks bounce.
Broughton — who is well liked by her clients — approached her boss, Dave Delbianco, the paper's recently hired sales director, and said she needed her check before noon. The business manager, Deborah Morse, who usually deals with payroll issues, and the Publisher Catherine Nelson, were not present, Broughton says.
Broughton left the office to meet with a customer and when she returned Delbianco gave her a handwritten check and told her he had to let her go. According to Broughton, Delbianco said she was fired because two of her clients had complained about her.
Delbianco could not tell her who had complained, Broughton says.
"If there was a complaint about me not servicing properly, they should've told me," said Broughton.
Alison McCullough, who owns a real estate company in Rutland, has advertised with Broughton for the last two years. She was shocked to learn of Broughton's dismissal. "I'm floored," she said. "I think somebody has thrown her under the bus."
Reached on his cell phone, Delbianco said he'd have to call the publisher, Catherine Nelson, before commenting. Nelson did not respond to requests for comment.
Under Vermont law employers can fire workers for any reason, unless they are a member of a union, as long as it does not involve discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. The law requires only that the employee be paid whatever they're owed within 72 hours of being fired.
"Generally, if you're fired your remedy is going to be a civil one unless you can show it was discriminatory based on some sort of protected class status," said Dirk Anderson, an attorney with the Vermont Department of Labor.
The firing comes just two weeks after the Herald published a story on payroll problems at the company. Several full-time employees had checks bounce in July and freelancers were not being paid at all. A story written by Gordon Dritschilo was critical of management for not communicating with employees about the paper's financial situation. When Herald President John Mitchell learned that a second story was being pursued, he fired news editor Alan Keays.
A second editor, Patty Minichiello, resigned in protest the following Monday just before management held a meeting with staff at both the Herald and Times Argus. "I did not agree with the firing of Alan Keays," Minichiello said. The paper's education reporter, Lola Duffort, has also given notice and will be taking a position with the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.
Two days after the "all staff" meeting, the Herald announced it had entered into an agreement to sell the paper to Maine based publisher Reade Brower and Chip Harris, co-founder of the Upper Valley Press in New Hampshire, which prints the Herald and Times Argus. Employees learned of the sale in an email from Editor-in-Chief Rob Mitchell. The story appeared on the front page of Thursday's paper after being inserted in the paper late Wednesday.
After she was fired, Broughton said she was told to turn over her phone and swipe card and leave the building without cleaning out her desk. "I didn't even take the picture of my daughter," she said. A colleague later informed Broughton that management wanted the password for her work phone. Broughton was also told that her desk had been cleaned out.
Broughton immediately went to the Department of Labor's Rutland office on Merchants Row and was given a complaint referral form, which she intends to file next week.
Ivan Rochon, who has a jewelry business downtown and has advertised with the Herald for years, says he's worked with at least 20 sales reps at the paper. "Val has been one of the better ones," he said.
McCullough said she requested Broughton to be her sales representative because she was so attentive. "Val was willing to come to my office every week to go over what I wanted," she said. She could be pushy, McCullough said, but she was highly qualified.
Scott Brileya, president of a Chrysler Jeep dealership on Route 7 in Rutland, was also shocked to learn of Broughton's dismissal. He said she was punctual, good-natured, and did her job well. "I really liked her," he said. "She was good. Very personable."
Brileya, who has advertised with the Herald for more than 30 years, says he would be surprised if anyone had complained about Broughton.
According to Broughton, she brought in about $30,000 in sales a month and loved what she did. In recent months as the paper has experienced financial difficulties Broughton has sought information to reassure advertisers. She's asked about overall delivery numbers, why certain sections of the paper have been canceled, what's happening with the paper. "It's like pulling teeth," said Broughton. "I wanted answers. I wanted to know."
Last Monday Carlene Kenney, a former colleague of Broughton's, put a lien on the Herald's property for unpaid back wages. Kenney alleges that the Herald incorrectly calculated her commissions on sales and owes her more than $1,500.
According to Kenney, earlier this week she received a letter from the Department of Labor as well as a copy of the letter they sent to the Herald. The letter states that the Herald has 10 days to respond to the complaint. Kenney says she received a check for her April commissions but not for the amount she claimed. She's yet to hear about the remaining unpaid wages.
Adam Federman covers Rutland County for VTDigger. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Adam on Twitter @federman_adam.