This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource. 

A west Kentucky television station manager told his employees they need his permission before getting tested for coronavirus, after an employee at the station tested positive for infection by the virus. Some employees of the station’s parent company, Paxton Media Group, say that policy discourages them from getting a test. Health and legal experts say the station policy is problematic, putting employees of the station and the public at large at risk for spreading the virus.

Some employees of WPSD-TV in Paducah say their coverage promoting safety measures against the spread of COVID-19 is disconnected from how the company protects employees from the virus. The Ohio Valley ReSource spoke on background with three people associated with Paxton Media Group  which owns WPSD, the Paducah Sun newspaper, and numerous other media outlets in west Kentucky. Those people, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid reprisal, say they fear their health and safety is not a priority at the company. They cited a memo from Bill Evans, the Vice President and General Manager of WPSD, implementing a new testing protocol at WPSD that legal and health experts say is problematic.

“If you DID NOT have direct contact (within six feet, for more than 10 minutes) with the employee that tested positive, and you ARE NOT showing symptoms — there is no reason to get tested,” Evans wrote in the memo dated June 26, which was subsequently posted on social media. “Any further COVID-19 testing will be done with my approval only.”

Evans added that the station’s weekend morning newscast would be cancelled due to the need to isolate employees after being tested. He also stated that getting his permission for testing would let the station manage “staffing needs.”

An excerpt from the WPSD management memo instructing employees to get permission before a COVID-19 test. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

PMG sources said some WPSD employees potentially exposed to the person who tested positive had already received COVID-19 tests before the June 26 memo was issued.

Evans, who is also publisher of the Paducah Sun, declined an on-the-record interview about the memo. In a July 8 statement to the ReSource, Evans acknowledged an employee tested positive and that afterwards employees who had close contact with that person were tested. The June 26 memo states some employees were tested at Baptist Health Paducah Hospital’s Urgent Care.PMG sources said some WPSD employees potentially exposed to the person who tested positive had already received COVID-19 tests before the June 26 memo was issued.

All employees were then required to wear masks in common areas of the workplace. Some asymptomatic employees who weren’t in close contact with the positive case also requested and received tests, he said, and the facilities offering the test required all employees tested to not return to work until getting a negative test result.

“As a result, we were required to cancel our weekend morning newscasts.  I directed that any other employee that wished to be tested should clear such testing with me so that I could make staffing arrangements in anticipation of the state mandated quarantine following such testing,” Evans said in the statement. “No other employee indicated that they wished to be tested. The following week every employee who had been tested reported receiving a negative test result.”

Susan Dunlap, Executive Director of the Office of Public Affairs in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said in a statement state health officials only recommend —  not mandate —  that Kentuckians quarantine after receiving a test in all cases to prevent the spread of the virus.

Sources associated with PMG said the June 26 memo discouraged employees from getting COVID-19 tests on their own out of fear of reprisal from management. Sources also said the protocol in the memo was still in force, publicly posted in WPSD’s office as of July 7.

Leading experts in public health, employment law, and media commentary say the station memo’s demand for permission to get coronavirus testing could expose PMG to legal liability, potentially violate state COVID-19 guidance for employers, and could put the health of employees and the public at large at risk.

“Insanely Reckless”

PMG sources detailed how in the months leading up to when the positive case was discovered among station employees, they felt that measures to protect employees at WPSD and The Paducah Sun were rudimentary, or an afterthought. One source said that social distancing behind the camera in the WPSD workplace wasn’t taken seriously until after the positive case was discovered.

Two sources expressed that while alternatives were offered for doing interviews and reporting remotely, there was an expectation among management of The Paducah Sun and WPSD that reporting in public was preferred, even if some in-person reporting wasn’t necessary in light of risks due to the pandemic.

In regards to the specific June 26 memo sent to WPSD employees, one source stated the memo was viewed in a negative light by staff, and the source worried that news of the memo would hurt the station’s credibility, considering the station’s extensive coverage of the pandemic and various safety measures.

WPSD reporters covered some of the first meetings of McCracken County leaders as the specter of the pandemic materialized, making trips to local hospitals, into businesses, and talking with residents out in public. WPSD also provides a link to an information guide on their website’s landing page on coronavirus-related resources, including how to sew face masks, a list of local food pantries, and a list of regional testing sites.

The same source also expressed dismay over what they saw as inaction by local government and health leaders on addressing the memo. The memo had been posted on social media, receiving discussion on Facebook as early as June 27.

”We’re in a life or death situation, and you’re telling us that we have to seek approval to get tested for this? I mean, it’s only killed over 120,000 people in the country so far,” a source said. “It’s just insanely reckless.”

This source said even though they were asymptomatic and weren’t around the positive case for an extended period of time, they hadn’t received a test in part out of fear of reprisal from management from having to potentially miss work days until receiving a test result.

“It’s kind of like we’re playing Red Rover with the coronavirus, and this isn’t a type of game you play for fun. Coronavirus is a life or death situation, and we should have been taking this way more seriously from the jump,” the same source said.

Kentucky Department for Public Health Commissioner Steven Stack said in a statement that his department has consistently encouraged everyone, employers and employees, to isolate and receive testing if sick.

“If an employer issued a memo, internal or otherwise, that discouraged employees from getting tested, they have endangered their employees, the public at large, and have violated the Healthy at Work guidance that has been published since early/mid-May,” Stack said in his statement.

Stack referenced Gov. Andy Beshear’s executive order from May 11, establishing “Healthy at Work” guidance for employers. The guidance states employers should have all employees experiencing COVID-19 symptoms receive a test within 36 hours, with employees trained on how to isolate certain cases, and make accommodations for employees at higher risk from the virus, among other requirements.

Stack also referenced recent guidance from June 29 that requires employers to have a testing plan in place to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in a workplace. The guidance for a testing plan recommends employers to have a protocol in place to identify and test symptomatic employees and isolate close contacts, remaining in quarantine for 14 days to see if COVID-19 symptoms develop.

The Kentucky Labor Cabinet enforces non-compliance of the “Healthy at Work” guidance. Cabinet Chief of Staff Marjorie Arnold said in a statement that cabinet employees can serve “Orders to Cease Operations to companies for failing to follow requirements and Notices of Deficiency for companies that have had minor deficiencies identified.”

Arnold said an Order to Cease Operations mandates a company to stop operating until the company comes into compliance, while a Notice of Deficiency lets a company continue to operate while submitting evidence of actions taken to correct “identified deficiencies.” She added employers who fail to follow Healthy at Work guidance could face monetary penalties.

Legal Liability

One Louisville-based attorney specializing in employment law and representing employees facing wrongful termination and dangerous work conditions said he believes the memo could expose Paxton Media Group to legal liability.

“This company’s memo, what they are doing gets in the way of Kentucky’s public policy that favors testing. And so they should be able to sue them over it. And also enjoin the memo from ever being applied to anybody else,” said John Friend, a director and shareholder at Bishop Friend, P.S.C. “You have a lot of companies that are losing money, and they’re panicking because they were not prepared for something like this. And when people panic, they do dumb stuff. In an era where there is not this COVID-19 going on, there is not a company in the United States of America that would send out a memo like this. Anywhere. Like, this is crazy.”

Friend said while he couldn’t immediately point to a specific executive order or state statute that would clash with the memo’s protocol, he believes “if somebody decides to come after them, I think they’re gonna have a problem.”

PMG has had to make recent cuts that the company says is associated with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Another leaked memo dated June 25 states some furloughed employees had their positions eliminated, impacting WPSD and six PMG-owned newspapers.

Excerpt from a management memo announcing cuts due to the pandemic’s impact. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

PMG owns a significant chunk of media outlets in the Jackson Purchase and Pennyrile regions of Kentucky, including newspapers covering cities including Hopkinsville, Madisonville, Mayfield, Owensboro, Paducah, Benton, Eddyville, and newspapers covering Trigg County and McLean County. PMG also owns multiple newspapers in other states including Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Despite the social media discussion of the memo as early as June 27, the memo appears to have garnered no previous media coverage. Al Cross is the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. Cross said it’s rare for media companies to cover themselves.

“In the ideal world, there would have been some independent reporting with an outside editor in Paxton Media Group publications. But, sad to say, that would be a rarity in American journalism today,” Cross said.

Cross also said he believes the reason the memo was issued was to prevent more losses from canceled newscasts, but that it was still an “inappropriate” protocol.

“If I were an employee, I would feel discouraged from getting a test, and that is not appropriate,” Cross said. “The staffing needs of the station should not stand in the way of the employees’ health.”

On Saturday, June 27, WPSD made a since-deleted post on Facebook stating they were canceling their morning newscast, a day after Evans issued his June 26 memo.

“The essential employees who work on our news and production team have made extraordinary personal sacrifices during the past few months providing dedicated & extensive coverage of COVID-19 and its continuing impact, while dealing themselves with the economic and health impacts of the pandemic,” the post stated. “These factors contributed significantly to our decision to suspend the broadcast on a one time basis in consideration of our team.”

The post did not mention that the cancellation was due to a positive COVID-19 test among employees.

DISCLOSURE NOTE: The news director at ReSource partner station WKMS is a former Paxton Media Group employee. In order to avoid any conflict of interest, the news director was not involved in editing or producing this story.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.