Former Courier-Journal executive's e-mail about employee facing - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Former Courier-Journal executive's e-mail about employee facing layoff was "not my best moment"

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Mike Huot Mike Huot
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A former Courier-Journal human resources executive acknowledged during her testimony Friday that “it was not my best moment” when she joked in a 2011 e-mail from a Gannett executive that he should “go for more Chardonnay … and make it the good stuff” in dealing with laying-off an employee.

“I wish I hadn’t said that,” Randi Austin testified on the third day of Mike Huot’s age-discrimination lawsuit against the newspaper and its parent company, Gannett Inc. “I’m embarrassed by that.”

Austin’s e-mail response was to a message sent by Michael Kane, the head of Gannett’s East Group, which included the Courier-Journal. In the months before Huot was laid off, Kane had said that dealing with the “Huot situation” might kill him.

Austin said her remark came at the end of a long week during a tough time in the industry and was not meant to make light of Huot’s situation.

“I dedicated my whole career to making sure we treated people fairly,” testified Austin. She added that she was offended by the way she was being portrayed.

Jan West, Huot’s attorney, has said Gannett fired Huot so they could replace him with a younger employer, a 49-year-old who would make far less - $168,000 compared to Huot’s $325,000 in salary and bonuses. Huot, a former circulation executive at the newspaper, is asking for more than $1 million in back-pay and damages.

West told jurors that 80 percent of people laid off by the Courier and its Gannett group were over the age of 40. Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Fred Cowan denied a request for West to show jurors a list of the names and ages of employees laid off.

West has said the company decided to fire Huot long before a company reorganization in September 2011, but delayed it until then to “cover it up” and avoid potential litigation.

Austin, who retired in 2013,  said age had nothing to do with Huot’s termination and that his position was being eliminated “as part of a restructure.” Attorneys for Gannett and the Courier-Journal showed names of numerous former employees who were in their 30s, 40, 50s and 60s when they were laid off.

The layoffs were necessary to save money at a time when the industry was struggling financially and Austin said corporate officials were closely monitoring the age and race of those who were let go to make sure they were not factors in the decisions.

“We didn’t want to target older workers,” Austin told jurors.

Huot being laid off saved the jobs of some reporters at the paper, according to testimony and documents shown to jurors on Friday.

In her testimony, Austin said that “many, many feet on the street employees,” like reporters and sales staff, had already been laid off and the focus began to shift to management.

Huot himself made recommendations on people to fire, Austin said.

Gannett and Courier-Journal attorneys have pointed out that hundreds of people were laid off before Huot was let go, and hundreds have been fired since then.

The “pressure to reduce expenses did not end,” Austin testified. She said when she began at the Courier-Journal in 2006, the company had 900 employees. When she retired last year that number was down to 450, Austin testified. She added that there has also been salary freezes and furloughs.

It’s a tough time to attract employees to the newspaper business, Austin said, noting that people of all ages don’t see it as a “viable option anymore.”

The trial will continue on Monday and is expected to last through the middle of the week.

The trial before Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Fred Cowan is expected to last into the middle of next week .Check out WDRB.com reporter Jason Riley's Twitter feed @jasonrileyWDRB for more coverage of the trial.

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