On March 27, 2014, journalist Serena Markstrom stood outside the Register-Guardnewspaper, pregnant and unemployed.
Today, Aug. 28, 2015, she filed a complaint against the paper in Lane County Circuit Court seeking economic and non-economic losses of $525,000. The case centers on claims of gender discrimination, hostile work environment, retaliation and violating the Oregon Family Leave Act. You can read the full document below.
Markstrom, who also goes by her married name Serena Markstrom Nugent, was fired from the paper where she had worked for 12 years and instead of a baby shower, former fellow employees at the R-G gathered to say goodbye on a rainy sidewalk in front of the newspaper’s Chad Drive offices.
Markstrom had worked at the daily paper in Eugene, Oregon since college and was well known in the community for her lively entertainment reporting and social media presence.
In the months before the paper fired her, Nugent had been pulled from her longtime music and entertainment beat, a beat the court filing says “for which she was recruited, trained, experienced and exceptional” and put on newsroom beat that covered all of rural Lane County. As EWwrote at the time of the change in her beat:
Such switches, as well as downsizing of newspaper newsrooms, have become more common in recent years as print newspapers deal with a changing world of internet publishing and social media. Moving writers to beats they are unfamiliar with is often seen as a strategy to get rid of experienced, higher-paid writers and replace them with newer reporters at a lower pay scale.
The complaint goes on to say that The Register-Guard failed to provide Markstrom any “meaningful help,” for more than seven months, but her editors were nonetheless supportive until “all of that changed dramatically when she notified The Register-Guard of her need for pregnancy related family leave.”
The court document does not say that Markstrom never made any errors in her time at the R-G and in fact points several of them out, rather the argument is that the newspaper “precipitously re-characterized any of Ms. Markstrom's mistakes in the months before her pregnancy as serious performance deficiencies.”
After the R-G presented Markstrom with a “lengthy performance improvement plan that threatened her with termination in the very near future over issues that it had never previously brought to Ms. Markstrom's attention as sufficiently problematic to justify discipline, let alone termination” her doctor removed her from the workplace for the rest of her pregnancy, the court filing says.
After Markstrom submitted her request for Oregon Family Leave Act intermittent leave to deal with pregnancy related illness, the complaint says that Wendy Baker — a member of the Baker family, which owns the R-G, who is legal counsel and director of human resources at the paper — instructed Markstrom’s editor to “promptly document any and all of Ms. Markstrom's conduct that the editor, Ilene Aleshire, “could be critical of because, according to Ms. Baker, The Register-Guard ‘needed to get this done soon,’ before Ms. Markstrom "got into her pregnancy and … claimed pregnancy discrimination."
Ultimately Markstrom was fired for being "dishonest, insubordinate and having destroyed company property” after checking her email while on pregnancy related disability leave.
According to the complaint, Aleshire told Markstrom that she could not ‘do any work, including checking emails and voicemails,’ while she was on disability leave.
However, Markstrom's complaint says she understood this to mean that she could not work — which might include checking work-related emails and voicemails. “She did not understand this to be a total prohibition against accessing her email account for personal matters.”
The R-G and its union — Eugene Newspaper Guild Local 37194 of the Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers for America — had previously been in a legal battle that the complaint says “led to a judgment authorizing Guild members to use their Register-Guard emails for union and personal matters.”
Markstrom still writes and currently freelances a parenting column for a local start-up lifestyle magazine, Lane Monthly.
EW has contacted the Wendy Baker and Dave Baker at the R-G for comment. Wendy Baker says she may comment after she has seen the lawsuit. EW will be updating this blog online if more information, including a response from the R-G arises, and following up with an news story in print.
Full disclosure: Camilla Mortensen attended Serena Markstrom's wedding and the writers are friends.