Are columnists employees of the publication they write for?

February 4, 2011

Some writers work as columnist for newspapers and magazines. They write about their area of expertise, in fact most of them can be better categorized as field experts than writers. There are doctors who write about healthcare, lawyers about law and jurisprudence, literary critics about comparative literature and literary culture, and so on. We readers serially follow their works. We even associate them with the magazine or newspaper where they write. We think they work for them, or are employees of the said publications.

The case of Orozco v. CA (August 13, 2008) sheds light on this issue. It is about Wilhelmina Orozco who was a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She had been columnist for the lifestyle section for three years until she was informed that the newspaper was terminating her column for the reason that said section already had too many columnists and her writing was not getting any better. She filed complaint for illegal dismissal and argued that indeed she was an employee of said newspaper. She said that in fact, the PDI had control over the means and methods of her work (the control test is the most important determinant of an employer-employee relationship) because it had prerogative to reject any article submitted by her. She also had to adapt her subjects and writing style to suit the editorial taste of the editor else her articles would be rejected. Even the length of her articles was set by the PDI. She was obligated to produce an article per week and her articles appeared in said broadsheet regularly.

For its part the PDI argued that she could not be an employee because there was no employment contract in the first place. She was not required to report eight hours a day. She could even go abroad without their permission and suffer no disciplinary action. It explained that the length of the articles was delimited to accommodate others. And since it was lifestyle section she naturally had to adjust her topics to suit the section, but still, the topics were of her own choice. PDI only controlled the end-result and not the means by which said articles were written.

Our Supreme Court ruled that not every form of control could be construed as having the effect of establishing employer-employee relationship. Such control must not be merely guidelines towards the achievement of the mutually desired result without dictating the means and methods to be employed in attaining it. The Inquirer is a widely-read broadsheet so it has to set standards for the sake of public interest. The control as to which article shall appear in its pages pertains only to the end result—the submitted articles. The PDI has no control as to the means and methods of the columnist in writing or producing articles. In this case, there were no restraints on her creativity for she only had to fit her works to the theme of the lifestyle section. The prerogative to reject is not legal control. It is control merely on the end result and not on the process.

Also, as per the Economic Reality Test, Orozco was found to be not dependent on PDI for her livelihood. Being a columnist was not her main preoccupation. She was a woman’s right advocate working in various women’s organizations. She was not an employee of PDI but an independent contractor. She was engaged as a columnist for her talent, skill and experience, and her unique voice as a feminist. Besides, the PDI did not supply the tools and instrumentalities for her work. She merely needed her talent and skill.

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