No way around it. This is an uncomfortable trend in many newsrooms right now. In fact, some companies are making it written policy. The good part: You get a sweet out of town assignment! The bad part: You have to pay the travel costs upfront, fill out an expense report when you get back, then wait for reimbursement that can take up to 6 weeks. And, by the way, your credit card bill will come due before that 6 weeks is up and you get your money back. It’s a problem a lot of news employees are wrestling with these days. I recently read a forum entry on b-roll.net from a photojournalist asking how to approach this subject during salary negotiations. Here are some ideas to deal with this road trip trend.
So what if you are asked to go out of town and just cannot front the money? You need to tell management flat out. Yes, it could mean losing out on a primo assignment. Better that than not paying your bills though. In many cases, if management really wants you on the story, there is a work around. Sometimes the boss pays the hotel, or perhaps the business manager ponies up some petty cash. It really depends on the station and the individual managers. Does saying you cannot pay upfront make you look bad to the bosses? That depends on the manager. But even if they seem upset, they usually understand. Most often it’s more a case of managers being frustrated because they know asking you to pay upfront is unreasonable and the boss is stuck with a policy that stinks.
If you decide to front the money, get a description of any limits for certain expenses ahead of time in writing. (i.e. – How much per meal? How much for parking etc.?) Be firm on this. Trouble is, some of these policies are so rigid, the limits can be highly unreasonable. For example, some companies have a maximum amount to be reimbursed for hotel stays. Depending on where you are going and what you are covering, hotel costs can vary greatly. This can put a crew in a really rough spot especially if the limits were not checked ahead of time. The last thing you want is to pay $150 for a room only to find out the company policy is a maximum of $100. That’s your credit card and, therefore, your financial worth on the line. If no one can provide you with written limits, think hard before agreeing to the assignment.
If you are headed out of town on a last minute assignment you need to ask about clothing and equipment reimbursement limits. You never know what’s going to happen, and you want to be prepared. Also, in an open ended return kind of scenario, set a limit as to how much you are willing to pay out of pocket before you go. Make sure management and the business office are clear you will not front a single dollar more and there needs to be a backup plan everyone is aware of in case you have to stay longer than your money will pay for.
Also ask how far out of your market qualifies a trip as “out of town.” You don’t want a scenario where you decide to push it driving home, then stop for dinner somewhere too close to your ADI to count for reimbursement. Yes, you were miles and miles away on assignment, but the button pushers will only look at the location of the purchase if there are ADI restrictions. You will either get stuck covering the meal or have to go several rounds with the boss to make your receipt an exception. If that happens it could be held against you later. Remember, a case like this makes the boss look disorganized. Even if the boss is sloppy, you don’t want to be the one who makes it obvious to the world. Asking for those policies ahead of time will avoid the mess.
What if your contract requires you to front the money ahead of time? The only practical advice we can offer is to keep a credit card that can “cover you” until you are reimbursed. A contract is a contract and if you signed it, you’re going to have to live up to its terms.
This is a complicated and emerging issue in TV newsrooms. There may be more ways to deal with it than we’ve listed here. So, please, if you have other ideas let us know. You can leave comments below. Many of us are facing this type of situation for the first time in our careers and need to bounce ideas around about covering that sweet road trip upfront.