Citing the Unprecedented Impact of COVID-19, Essence Announces Staff Furloughs

Richelieu Dennis speaks on stage at the 2019 ESSENCE Festival Presented by Coca-Cola on July 06, 2019, in New Orleans, La.
Richelieu Dennis speaks on stage at the 2019 ESSENCE Festival Presented by Coca-Cola on July 06, 2019, in New Orleans, La.
Photo: Paras Griffin (Getty Images)

It’s been a difficult year for all of us—and as a statement published in Essence magazine Tuesday night revealed, “Essence Communications, Inc. (“ECI”) has not been immune to it.”

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Framed as an update on the actions taken by the company in response to the now six-month-long impact of COVID-19, the legacy imprint, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, announced the furloughs of an undisclosed number of its staff, effective immediately, citing “a broader and longer-lasting impact than anyone expected.”

Per the magazine:

After a thorough analysis of our business and its financial position and carefully exploring all options for continued viability, we have made the very difficult decision to implement temporary measures to account for the ongoing significant negative impact of the pandemic, including furloughs.

While the business was able to prevent taking such measures during the initial onset of the pandemic via significant personal investments from ownership along with limited PPP funds, the prolonged situation and unforeseeable business now require us to take additional action to ensure the long-term sustainability of ECI.

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The statement assures readers that neither Essence magazine (in its digital or print formats) nor its highly popular Essence Festival of Culture, which went virtual this year, is “going anywhere.” Nevertheless, the statement says, “[i]t goes without saying that the health crisis halted large-scale live events and having to cancel the Essence Festival of Culture experience in New Orleans this past July affected our business and our revenue.”

Suspending the work and salaries of staff members is one remedy to this shortfall. The statement clarifies that those employees affected will cease work through the furloughs, but will be paid through the remainder of this week and will continue to receive coverage of medical benefit premiums through the duration, which is currently not expected to exceed six months. While disconcerting, the measure isn’t entirely uncustomary in our current climate, as the Daily Beast points out: “Essence is the latest in a series of media publications that have implemented furloughs during the pandemic, including Vox Media, magazine publisher Condé Nast, and BuzzFeed News, which restored full salaries for employees in recent weeks.”

Undoubtedly in hope of that same outcome, the company claims its furloughs are being made with both the preservation of the Essence legacy and its continued long-term growth in mind, stating that it plans to continue investments in its “magazine, digital, and virtual experiences,” as well as resuming live events when safe to do so.

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That said, it’s worth noting that the economic impact of the pandemic isn’t the only challenge Essence Communications has faced in recent months. As the Festival of Culture made an untested and indisputably far less profitable pivot to a virtual format in late June, a group of former and current female staffers dubbed #BlackFemaleAnonymous made allegations of nepotism and sexual misconduct by Essence Ventures owner Richelieu Dennis and toxic culture perpetuated by the leadership of Essence Communications, which forced said leadership to not only reorganize, installing diversity and inclusion veteran Caroline Wanga as interim CEO, but necessitated two third-party investigations to refute the explosive claims made by #BlackFemaleAnonymous.

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“[O]ur commitment to successfully guiding this iconic brand through these immediate challenges and forward is unwavering,” the company now says. “Our team and the community we serve are too important. The culture we reflect and create is too important. The platforms we’ve built for the celebration, inspiration and empowerment of Black women and communities are too important...”

“We are confident that the actions we are taking now will help ensure that Essence is here to thrive for another 50+ years as an independent Black-owned media business,” the statement concludes, thanking readers for their continued support.

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Updated: Thursday, 10/1/20, at 5:45 p.m., ET: Representatives for Richelieu Dennis reached out to The Glow Up regarding the allegations leveled against Dennis by #BlackFemaleAnonymous in July and the results of the two separate independent investigations into the accusations, which The Glow Up reported on as findings were initially released.

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Wanting to once again make unequivocally clear that the investigations exonerated Dennis of any wrongdoing, his team said the following:

The fact that many in his position could have ignored such allegations because he knew them to be false and because he knew they were anonymous, Rich did otherwise. He instead called on two of the most prominent independent and respected firms in the country to conduct extensive reviews. And his name was cleared.

Rich bought Essence 2 years ago and is committed to its transformation. He also has said this week that as long as he owns the media enterprise, the only Black-owned media left, he will continue to assure that Essence (print and digital) will endure for another 50 years. It will not be diminished under his watch.

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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