A former New York Post photographer claims he was fired in retaliation for requesting protective equipment to use while covering the COVID-19 pandemic and massive protests, according to a new lawsuit.
Taidgh Barron, who had been with the NY Post since September 2019, is suing the Post and its parent company News Corp for allegedly retaliating against him after raising safety concerns at the height of the pandemic and protests in Manhattan state supreme court.
According to the lawsuit filed on Thursday, Barron asked the photography director Chris Dougherty twice for personal protective equipment like masks to keep him safe from COVID-19 as early as February—days after COVID-19 was suspected in NYC. Dougherty denied the request, the lawsuit alleges.
In June, Barron was later ignored again when he told Dougherty he was assaulted by looters while on assignment covering a protest and asked if Post photographers and reporters could get gear like press helmets and goggles, the lawsuit alleges.
On July 22nd, he was allegedly fired in retaliation for making the requests.
The company claims it was a financial decision. At the time, the Post had just brought back on some furloughed runners after months of unpaid time off.
"I stuck up for The Post through some pretty heavy stuff," Barron said in a statement. "I did well, and I was retaliated against for doing my job."
Over the course of several weeks as coronavirus raged through NYC, Barron would photograph transit workers, subway riders, and police officers clearing the subway system of homeless people during overnight cleaning, according to the lawsuit.
He went on assignment to a hospital and covered a press conference with MTA Chairman Pat Foye, who would test positive for the virus shortly thereafter.
Barron expressed concern about going back into the field after being in close proximity to Foye, but was sent back into the field. He spent hours at Grand Central Station to film a time-lapse video, exposing himself to hundreds of people in the transit hub.
The Wall Street Journal—also a News Corp publication—had given a freelance photographer masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer, the NY Times reported last spring.
But the safety concerns at the Post were allegedly ignored until April 19th, when the company gave Barron "seven low-quality surgical masks, not enough to protect Barron for more than one week of work."
The mask handout occurred about one week after the Post's sports photographer, Anthony Causi, died of coronavirus.
"I saw coronavirus coming as I read about it in our own newspaper," Barron said.
Some NY Post runners, who file quotes and information from the streets to writers, contracted the coronavirus. At least five part-time runners—among those furloughed in the spring—got coronavirus, according to one former Post runner who contracted the virus.
The former runner, who requested anonymity because they did not want to jeopardize future job prospects, believes the runners got sick while on the job—going out into public to interview people on the street, at their homes, or in hospitals.
"I was going about my day. I didn't have a mask. I was talking to whoever," said the runner, who recalls being told they could request reimbursement for masks, but such equipment was difficult to find to begin with.
"Everyone was like in hysterics buying masks and there was just nothing available, so I don’t think I actually ever ended up finding masks or buying them and expensing them," the former runner said, adding that in hindsight, "I think, 'Oh, Whoa. That was definitely not safe,' [but] I think that's [how] every New Yorker in the city feels as well."
News Corp did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Dougherty, the photography director who is named in the lawsuit but not a defendant, did not immediately respond to an email.
Worker safety has become a critical focus among labor organizers and workers during the pandemic in which under-paid, often hourly workers are required to come into contact with the public, putting them at risk of contracting the virus. Workers at Amazon, grocery delivery app Instacart, and building porters have staged sick-outs and strikes, detailing unsafe conditions and lack of protective measures throughout the pandemic as employees have gotten sick or even died from COVID-19 during the pandemic.
Journalists—especially those in the field like photographers or street reporters—have also faced arrest during protest coverage, been threatened or physically shoved by police, or attacked by civilians at demonstrations.
Barron's lawyer Alix Rubin said: "We hope this lawsuit will be a warning to other employers that you have to protect your employees, particularly those on the front lines."
"And the law will come down on you if you fire them for complaining about the lack of protection," Rubin added.
Barron is seeking an unspecified amount of pay, benefits, and other damages. His lawyer added they are also seeking a policy change at the company to protect photographers and reporters going forward.
UPDATE at 3:38 p.m. on November 10th: After publication of this article, a spokesperson for the New York Post denied the allegations.
"We expect to prevail in this matter because the allegations of wrongdoing are utterly and completely false," the spokesperson said in a statement.
"All staff who requested PPE were given it as soon as it could be obtained and no employee was turned down," the statement continued. "As was explained to employees at the time, the layoffs in July occurred to save costs in the midst of the pandemic, which had affected revenues. The allegation that anyone was terminated in retaliation for a whistleblower complaint is demonstrably untrue."