Cookie-Company Crisis Makes WSJ and NYT

Jeffrey D. Austen lost his job making cookies in Ohio. Some ambitious PR firm needs to hire him, stat.

It looks to me like he scored a PR coup this weekend, landing a page-one story in The Wall Street Journal on Saturday and a National section cover story in The New York Times on Sunday. Of course, he had a great story to sell.

And, of course, I’m just trying to read the lines here on how this coincidence happened. Take it with a grain of salt, but the Journal’s story reports that he formed an ex-employee group called The Burnt Cookies and is suing the company.

Let’s see how the stories stack up.

Both have pensive pictures of Austen, but the Journal’s photography (and this is a true shock) is better.

Both use a disturbing anecdote of an employee who had her labor induced early so she would be covered by her soon-to-expire health coverage (which ended up not covering her anyway).

Both say this snapshot illustrates how the economic crisis is exacerbating the health-care crisis.

It’s unfair to compare the Journal’s story with the Times’s—I don’t know if the NYT’s version was better, but got chopped down because the Journal beat it to print, so I’ll leave aside a value judgment on that and just say both are worthy. In fact, applaud the Times for not stuffing its story even though the Journal beat it by a day. Most of its readers don’t read the WSJ.

Here’s why these stories are important, from the Times:

“When I heard that I was losing my insurance,” she said, “I was scared. I remember that the bill for my son’s delivery in 2005 was about $9,000, and I knew I would never be able to pay that by myself.”

So Ms. Darling asked her midwife to induce labor two days before her health insurance expired.

“I was determined that we were getting this baby out, and it was going to be paid for,” said Ms. Darling, who was interviewed at her home here as she cradled the infant in her arms.

As it turned out, the insurance company denied her claim, leaving Ms. Darling with more than $17,000 in medical bills.

And from the Journal:

In May, Jevic Transportation, a New Jersey trucking company owned by buyout firm Sun Capital Partners Inc., told employees in a letter that it was shutting down and terminating insurance. “Continuation of these plans via Cobra is not an option since Jevic no longer provides any group health plan to any employee,” a human resources official wrote.

“My whole world ended when I opened that letter,” says Elizabeth Vaughn of Bordentown, N.J.

Her husband, D.S. “Sam” Vaughn, a 63-year-old Jevic driver, put off chemotherapy treatments when the company closed, she said. He later went to a government-subsidized clinic, Ms. Vaughn says, to get medicine for heart disease. She said he was ashamed.

“After he was laid off,” she says, “he’d just sit at the kitchen table saying, ‘I’m sorry.’”

Mr. Vaughn died over the summer of pneumonia. His obituary in the local paper, written by his wife, said: “He worked for 15 years for Jevic Transportation until they closed their doors and broke his heart.”

Somewhat maudlin, but gut-wrenching all the same.

And I’d like to zero in on this paragraph from the Journal:

Now that Archway is bankrupt, all its assets will be divided among creditors, including those with health claims. Archway bankruptcy documents list liabilities of $143 million and assets of $92 million.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say workers’ health claims ought to be paid before just about any other debt. Why aren’t they?

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.