by Eric Dietrich05.28.2020

HELENA — Staff at the Billings Gazette, Montana’s largest newspaper, announced May 28 that they are seeking recognition as the Montana News Guild, marking the first public union push at a daily Montana newspaper as journalists across the region look to labor organizing as a way to shield their jobs from the newspaper industry’s ongoing financial woes.

“For too long we have seen our corporate out-of-state employer, Lee Enterprises, cut our staff and raise our medical costs while providing few, if any, cost of living increases,” members of the Montana News Guild organizing committee said in a release. “We believe that through unionizing, we can create a more stable environment for local news to grow.”

Neither Billings Gazette publisher Dave Worstell nor regional editor David McCumber immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday. 

Lee, based in Davenport, Iowa, is a publicly traded company that owns 75 daily newspapers in 26 states. In Montana, Lee also owns the Missoulian, the Independent Record in Helena, the Montana Standard in Butte and the Ravalli Republic in Hamilton, making it the state’s dominant newspaper chain.

Neither the Lee papers in Montana nor the state’s three other large urban newspapers — the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell — have unionized newsrooms.

Journalists and business staff at another Lee-owned property, the alt-weekly Missoula Independent, voted to unionize in April 2018 following the paper’s sale to Lee by its local owner. The company ultimately shut the publication down that September.

At the Gazette, management now has the option of voluntarily recognizing the newsroom union or letting staff take a formal vote on organizing in an election overseen by the National Labor Relations Board. Following the successful formation of a union, Gazette staff and Lee managers would enter collective bargaining negotiations. 

A letter to Worstell requesting the company voluntarily recognize the union was signed by 19 Gazette staff members: Phoebe Tollefson, Robert Rogers, Victor Flores, Juliana Sukut, Brett French, Tom Lutey, Charity Dewing, Mike Clark, Casey Page, Mike Kordenbrock, Matt Hoffman, Mike Scherting, Anna Paige, Tim Stover, Bill Bighaus, Mari Hall, Rachelle Lacy, James Goossen and Greg Rachac.

A staff directory on the Gazette website lists 24 newsroom, sports and photography staff, including several mid-level editors who could be classified as non-union management positions.

Newspapers including the Gazette and other Montana publications have endured years of newsroom cuts as they lose advertising revenue to internet platforms like Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Those economic struggles have been compounded in recent months by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further decimated advertising revenues and triggered staff furloughs at every large paper in the state.

In their release, the Gazette staff write that the paper’s newsroom staff count has been halved in the past 20 years, and that page design being shifted to “an understaffed out-of-state central” facility. They also cite the elimination of in-house bookkeeping staff and the February layoffs of the paper’s longtime editorial page writer and chief editor, which means the Gazette newsroom now reports to a regional editor based in Butte.

“The Gazette’s large building that dominates the corner of Fourth Avenue and 27th Street now stands more than half empty,” staffers write.

The announcement comes amid a wave of unionization efforts at newspapers in states surrounding Montana. Staff at the Lee-owned Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming, for example, unionized in early 2018. The resulting Casper News Guild has said it’s been able to negotiate a contract with modest raises and negotiate the terms of furloughs made necessary by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elsewhere in the region, staff at the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne voted to unionize in March, and staff at the Idaho Statesman in Boise voted to unionize in April. The Tribune is owned by Adams Publishing Group, which also owns the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

Gazette staffers said Thursday that they don’t see unionizing as a silver bullet for the paper’s economic woes, but do hope that legal protections for organized labor will give them a chance to be involved as their managers weigh tough business decisions.

“We’re not expecting to eliminate every bad thing that’s coming down the pike,” said Victor Flores, a sports reporter. “We know that’s the reality of the business.”

In his year and a half with the Gazette, Flores said, he’s already sat through three staff meetings announcing layoffs. 

“We really just want a bit more protection,” he said.

Photo by Diane Larson

View from the Boulder River Bridge near Boulder, Mont. on May Day


Ashley Ausman of the DPHHS State Public Health Laboratory prepares samples for RNA extraction to conduct COVID-19 testing.

By Eric Dietrich, Montana Free Press, and Katheryn Houghton, Bozeman Daily Chronicle 3 mins ago

As Gov. Steve Bullock moves to roll back emergency measures enacted to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, he has said he’ll take a data-driven approach to reopening Montana’s economy  while minimizing the risk of a second-surge outbreak. 

State officials are keeping a close eye on the number of laboratory-confirmed cases. However, they aren’t tracking the number of Montanans who’ve been tested in each county, a metric national experts say is important to fully understand how the outbreak is playing out in different parts of the state.  

Testing has been in short supply across the country. Counting methods vary, but the U.S. has tested 4.6 million people, or roughly 1.4 percent of the population, according to data from Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s Coronavirus Research Center. Montana has tested 11,875, or 1.1% of its population.

While some local health departments can provide figures on the number of tests conducted in their jurisdictions, those numbers are often imperfect. 

Since there’s currently no vaccine for the disease, public health experts say testing for COVID-19 doesn’t change how patients are treated. Testing does show how much of a presence the virus has in specific locations, which is a primary factor employed by elected officials, health experts and the public in determining how quickly to scale back social distancing and closure measures.


Two Bozeman Health employees help a patient learn how to self-sample at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Bozeman.

Jon Ebelt, a spokesperson for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the state has what it needs to understand how the virus is spreading in Montana communities.


“We receive every piece of data we need from counties,” Ebelt said.

Bullock unveiled a plan Wednesday to reopen Montana’s economy, citing the state’s comparatively low COVID-19 case counts and apparent success at flattening the outbreak’s curve. The plan involves three phases of easing social distancing directives, and lets local governments adopt more stringent rules at their discretion. As he monitors the reopening, Bullock said, he is considering the number of confirmed cases, including how many are new each week, as well as hospitalization numbers, testing capacity and supplies of protective equipment.

“Decisions are going to be driven by the ongoing data and the science, not politics,” Bullock said at an April 14 press briefing. 

However, health experts say county-level testing counts are valuable data. Aaron Katz, a health policy professor with the University of Washington School of Public Health, said without knowing how many people have been tested in each county, officials can’t see shortfalls in testing from one place to the next. Without that, it’s difficult to chart the state’s rate of infection over time.

“I don’t believe they should be promoting that they have zero positive cases in our county. It’s just that they haven’t been testing people.”

—Karen Swigart, Miles City

“When you don’t know that, it’s really hard to make a good judgment of when to loosen up controls,” Katz said. 

In an effort to assess what information is available on local COVID-19 testing, journalists with Montana Public Radio, Yellowstone Public Radio, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Lee Newspapers and Montana Free Press teamed up to ask the local health officials serving each of Montana’s 56 counties how many of their residents had been tested for COVID-19 as of April 8.

After two weeks of follow-up calls and emails, we heard back from 53 counties, with 43 providing a figure for how many tests had been conducted on their residents either as of April 8 or by the date they responded. The responses indicate there has been wide variation in how many COVID-19 tests have been conducted in different parts of Montana, from upwards of 1,000 tests in some urban counties to fewer than 10 — or none at all — in some rural counties. 

Those figures, however, come with significant caveats.


While most local health departments provided figures on the number of tests conducted on their residents, many cautioned that their figures were imprecise. 

The state’s disease monitoring system, designed to identify and contain contagious outbreaks, is focused on tracking positive cases. Negative test results are a second-tier priority, meaning they’re not always reported to local health departments. 


Kalispell Regional Healthcare braces for the arrival of COVID-19 as seen on the afternoon of March 18, 2020

By Amanda Eggert 23 hours ago

It might come as a surprise to many that amid the public health emergency caused by COVID-19, health care workers are being hit hard with layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours. But that is in fact the case, as medical associations and public health agencies direct health care providers to cancel or postpone elective surgeries, primary care appointments, and other forms of non-urgent health care in order to preserve hospital workers’ personal protective equipment, ensure providers have adequate bandwidth to respond to the pandemic, and limit the spread of COVID-19 infection. As a result, hospital employees and other health care providers including dentists, ophthalmologists, surgical technicians, physical therapists, nurses, in-home care providers and office support staff are feeling the effects of a massive slow-down in one of Montana’s largest industries.

Last month, 3,345 workers in the health care and social assistance industries filed new unemployment claims with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, which represents 5% of the industry’s total statewide workforce and a 1,157% increase over the number of industry claims filed in March 2019. Just two economic sectors — accommodation and food service (9,883 claims), and construction (4,048 claims) — logged higher volumes of new claims.

Such a staggering workforce reduction is having a profound impact in Montana. Approximately 20% percent of the state’s total personal income and 17% of its employment are sourced to the health care industry, according to economist Robert Sonora, who directs health care research at the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. 

Sonora said health care is labor-intensive — and therefore an important job engine — and a significant contributor to Montana’s economic base, meaning many of the dollars spent on health care come from outside of the state (Medicare payments made to hospitals by the federal government, for example).  

COVID-19 has seriously destabilized that base. By the Montana Hospital Association’s estimation, Montana’s GDP is being reduced by $96 million per week due to reduced use of hospital services. Those service reductions translate to substantial revenue losses, and many hospitals are watching their reserves dwindle as a result. Now they’re making difficult calculations about how to make payroll and cover other expenses.

On April 13, Kalispell Regional Healthcare, which employs more than 4,000 people across a 13-county area of Montana, announced that it is furloughing roughly 600 employees. Without the furlough, the company projects it would lose more than $16 million in revenue per month. The move was prompted by “the compounding effect of the loss of patient volumes, cancellation of elective surgeries, and the closure of entire service lines,” CEO Craig Lambrecht wrote.

“Effective immediately KRH executives, physicians and executive directors will be taking reductions to their salaries. In addition, KRH will begin the necessary process of furloughing and reducing hours/shifts for certain employees. The furlough will impact about 600 employees,” the release said, without specifying which employees would be furloughed, or given mandatory suspensions from work without pay.

Kalispell Regional Healthcare is one of more than 100 hospitals across the country that have furloughed staff since late March, according to information compiled by Becker’s Hospital Review. It is the only Montana hospital named in the report.

Billings Clinic, which operates a 304-bed hospital in Billings and has relationships with critical access hospitals and clinics throughout the state, has committed to keeping its employees on payroll, chief human resources officer Jonathan McDermott said April 10. He said elective surgeries and clinic visits account for most of the company’s revenue, and with those income streams weakened, Billings Clinics’ revenues are “significantly down.” 

In order to continue paying employees, Billings Clinic has reduced some workers’ hours and shuffled employees whose positions or skills are currently in lesser demand into different roles. For example, some staffers are screening potential COVID-19 patients when they enter the hospital, a number of employees are working at an ad-hoc daycare set up by Billings Clinic at the Billings Public Library to meet essential health care workers’ childcare needs, and others are sewing face masks and surgical gowns. McDermott praised employees’ flexibility as they’ve adapted to the new roles.

“Most [of our employees] tell us that they’re very happy to have the opportunity to continue to work, even if it is in a different capacity,” he said. “It’s not lost on them that some of their neighbors [and family members] aren’t working right now.”

In Glasgow, Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital CEO Randall Holom said he’s managed to keep his approximately 250 employees on payroll despite the “fairly significant” hit to his company’s bottom line he expects to see when he reviews forthcoming financial statements.

Holom said his team is looking at funding options through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as well as support from state and local financial institutions. In the short term, Holom reports that Frances Mahon Deaconess has enough reserves to continue paying employees who’ve been sent home, but he said he worries about other rural Montana hospitals that are in more marginal financial positions. 

The ability of rural hospitals to survive the COVID-19 pandemic has also been on lawmakers’ radar. Last week, Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar urging him to ensure that the $100 billion set aside in the CARES Act for public, for-profit and nonprofit health care providers doesn’t discount rural hospitals’ needs. Many “already financially fragile hospitals face catastrophic cash shortages,” Tester wrote. “Tens of thousands of rural [Americans] will lose access to their nearest emergency room [without intervention].”

Hospitals aren’t the only health care providers facing bleak financial outlooks and difficult decisions. COVID-19-related service reductions have also dealt a swift blow to dentists, optometrists, physical therapists, and other outpatient care providers who fall under the “ambulatory care services” grouping. 

State unemployment numbers don’t break out claims by specific occupations, but the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that ambulatory care services — a category encompassing physicians’ offices, dentistry practices, outpatient care centers, home health care, medical and diagnostic laboratories and other health care services — is the segment of the health care and social assistance industry that suffered the greatest job losses last month. These providers’ payrolls fell a whopping 41% across the country since the first of March. 

Missoula Bone & Joint, a 15-physician orthopedic practice with a surgery center, urgent care clinic and on-site physical therapy, has seen a dramatic slowdown to its business that’s led to a 25% workforce reduction. Physicians are no longer performing elective procedures at the outpatient surgery center that opened just last December. CEO Sami Spencer said that since elective surgeries account for about 90% of patients, the financial losses are significant. The clinic also has experienced a drop in business of about 60%, she said.

Spencer said that since March 23, more than 50 of the business’ 200-plus employees have been laid off, and the rest are working reduced hours. Employees that have been laid off include physician assistants, nurses, surgical technicians, athletic trainers, patient transporters and front desk staff. 

She said Missoula Bone & Joint workers who filed for partial unemployment benefits have reported receiving checks. Those who are seeking the full benefits were still waiting, last she’d heard. (The volume of claims is “unprecedented,” according to a press release from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. More than 41,000 requests for payment were submitted to the unemployment office in a two-day period last week. The agency has trained or reassigned more than 100 employees to facilitate claims processing.)

Some businesses that are able to maintain their payrolls are doing so with the help of federal funding that’s been made available by recent federal legislation.

“As we move through the peak of COVID-19 in Montana, we anticipate many of these health care and social assistance employees will be brought back.”

—Mike Peery, Montana Department of Labor and Industry

Peter Schmieding, a dentist who treats patients at two rural clinics in south-central Montana, dropped off his application for the Paycheck Protection Program on the first day applications were accepted. He gave it to a banker he’s known for years — a smart move, given that the program is in high demand, with varying levels of cooperation from eligible banks. The program, which was created by the CARES Act and is run by the U.S. Small Business Association, will help him keep his hygienist on payroll even though she’s not currently working. It will also help cover some of his revenue loss.

Schmieding, who’s been a dentist for 39 years, said he considers himself lucky compared to other business owners: his overhead is low, he owns his facilities outright, and he has just two employees to support. He knows that’s not the case for many dentistry practices.

He isn’t seeing as many patients as he did before COVID-19 — some days he’ll treat four or five, and other days he won’t see any, he said — but he’s still available to treat urgent needs like an abscess or a tooth extraction.

“I feel l need to do my part,” Schmieding said. “A lot of the emergencies we see would [otherwise] end up in the ER.”

He’s treating these patients at considerable personal risk. “If I’m working 10 inches away from a [patient’s] mouth, then [I’m] probably more at risk than a physician,” he said. 

Schmieding has been staying away from his residence in Bozeman so he won’t unwittingly bring COVID-19 home to his wife, whose immune system has been weakened by radiation and other forms of cancer treatment. As of April 10, he said, he’d been sleeping at his clinic in Ennis for a couple of weeks rather than driving home after work.

Although his family is looking at expenses that can be trimmed, he doesn’t anticipate being financially strapped indefinitely. He said he thinks demand for his services will pick back up once COVID-19 starts receding.

Mike Peery, a director of labor market information with the state, echoes that optimism. He wrote in an email to Montana Free Press that he anticipates many lost and furloughed jobs will return. 

“As demand for [smaller specialty health care provider workers] change, and as we move through the peak of COVID-19 in Montana, we anticipate many of these health care and social assistance employees will be brought back,” he said. He added that the Department of Labor has noted a recent increase in job postings for personal and home care aides, medical health services managers, nurses, home health aides and social workers. 

Kalispell Regional Healthcare CEO Lambrecht indicated that he, too, believes his business will recover. 

“I am confident that we will ramp back up quickly once it is safe to do so,” he said.

April 13, 2020

Governor Steve Bullock today issued a Directive to provide emergency rental assistance to help families with limited financial resources make ends meet during the unprecedented economic situation caused by COVID-19. 

“COVID-19 is taking a significant economic toll on families, businesses and our entire state, and finding ways to mitigate those hardships is one of my top priorities,” Governor Steve Bullock said. “For families that can’t make their housing payment right now because they’ve lost income due to COVID-19, this Directive will help prevent a months-long rent backlog from coming due all at once.”

The Directive adds to Governor Bullock’s temporary suspension of certain evictions, foreclosures and service disconnections by creating a program to provide rental assistance to households experiencing substantial financial hardship due to COVID-19. The Department of Commerce will announce details on eligibility and the application process on or before April 17, 2020.

The program will also include relief funds specifically for households with children eligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

The state is exploring additional funding options for families who are not TANF-eligible, including federal CARES Act relief money.

The Directive is effective through April 24. 

The full Directive is linked here.