Sinclair fires reporter as she battles cancer

Alex George. Courtesy photo.

Alex George had already been through a lot. In the summer of 2017, four weeks after graduating from the University of Michigan, she moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, at the age of 22, to work as a general assignment reporter at WTVC, an ABC-affiliate, on a two-year-contract. Then, in May, after a gruelling first year at the station, she was diagnosed with a primitive neuroectodermal tumor, a rare form of pediatric bone cancer.

On May 9, George told viewers about her tumor, saying on air that she would be moving back to her family’s home, near Philadelphia, “to kick some cancer butt and come right back.” She smiled, but her voice started to break. “I didn’t just want to disappear and hide this,” she said.  

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George’s long-term disability benefits, which allowed her to take partially-paid time off for 90 days, were extended for another 90. In mid-September, George was told by her bosses at WTVC that she would eventually receive a check-up call from Mike Costa, who was the station’s general manager; Tom Henderson, the news director; and HR representatives from WTVC and Sinclair Broadcast Group, WTVC’s owner. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” she recalls. She thought she might be told of a shift from long-term disability to unpaid leave, which would allow her to stay on Sinclair’s medical benefits plan. But she was worried. “I felt it wasn’t the check-up call like they kept saying it was.”

On November 19, after undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy and surgery, George received the call, only to learn that Sinclair was terminating her contract before it was up. (The station is an ABC affiliate but because it is Sinclair-owned, the network isn’t involved with on-site decisions.)

George was informed that WTVC and Sinclair were terminating her contract and benefits as of December 1. She says she was told that Sinclair was not legally obligated to hold onto her position, but there was no further explanation given about why she was being let go. She was also asked about her health. “I could not believe they had the audacity to fire me and then asked me how I was doing,” she says.

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She had about two weeks to figure out if she would go on COBRA, her own plan under the Affordable Care Act, or her parent’s health plan under the ACA’s young adult coverage. “I had so many questions,” she tells CJR. “It was shocking to think that someone would do this in someone’s greatest time of need.”

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George’s next chemotherapy treatment was scheduled for early December. “How am I going to do this?” she recalls thinking. “What if I go in and they can’t give me the chemo? Is this a death sentence?” Before, her monthly insurance contribution was $200 per month. Under COBRA—the plan she chose —it increased to $570 per month, along with out-of-pocket medicines like prescription mouthwash ($70 a bottle) that George needs to treat her mouth sores. COBRA tends to be pricey, but for George, it was the best option, because it would allow her to retain the approvals and timeline for care she’d received under her old plan, and her parents’ plan has high deductibles. As for what George and her family plan to do after COBRA, which will expire after 18 months, she tells CJR, “I hope to have another job with insurance.”

A spokesperson for Sinclair sent CJR a statement on George’s termination that details the company’s “competitive” disability policy before adding that, “We have also expressed to Alex that once she is ready to return to work, we would be happy to meet and explore possible roles for her.”

On November 26, Costa announced on Facebook that he would be leaving WTVC after more than 14 years. In a conversation via LinkedIn message, Costa said there were many reasons for his decision to leave WTVC. When asked by CJR if George’s termination was one of them, he did not answer. When asked about details of the conference call, Costa said he “cannot and will not speak for Sinclair.” Costa tells CJR he had “nothing but respect and admiration for Alex.” He adds, “She is mature beyond her years. I have never met a more upbeat person who has tackled a tough situation with as much of a positive attitude and determination as Alex has. She was a hard worker who was willing to listen, learn, and grow. She has a very bright future in broadcast news.”

On December 7, George revealed on social media why she would not be returning to WTVC. “The decision was not made by me it was @WeAreSinclair,” she wrote. “They terminated my contract.” Viewers and other journalists expressed sadness, frustration, and disappointment. Some offered prayers for George’s recovery and her future. A few people, such as Mike Rosenberg, a reporter for The Seattle Times, and Steve Keeley, a morning news reporter of Fox 29 in Philadelphia, noted on Twitter that in September George had been voted “Best Columnist/Reporter” by the community in the Chattanooga Free-Press’s annual Best of the Best awards.

Since George announced her termination, she has heard from other Sinclair reporters and mentors saying they don’t want to work for the company. “People are angry,” she tells CJR. “I think that just shows corporate greed when they have so much revenue and yet they’re still telling somebody ‘We can’t afford your sickness for the next six months.’” She is still disappointed by the treatment she received from her bosses. “It’s understanding what the employee needs and caring about your employees,” she says. “To tell someone with a terminal illness that they’re not getting better fast enough is not acceptable as a corporation.”

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Karen K. Ho is freelance business, media and culture reporter, as well as a former Delacorte fellow, based in Toronto and New York. She is a former Delacorte Fellow at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho.