Monica Yant Kinney: When NJN goes dark, one staffer will face a real 'life and death situation'

Associate producer Michell Basalik, a cancer patient, talks with anchor Jim Hooker in the NJN newsroom.
Associate producer Michell Basalik, a cancer patient, talks with anchor Jim Hooker in the NJN newsroom. (MONICA YANT KINNEY / Staff)
Posted: June 16, 2011

In the war against public employees in New Jersey and beyond, the enemy is an entitled bureaucrat or lazy teacher enjoying a lifestyle and benefits you paid for but could never find in the private sector.

Politicians like Gov. Christie prefer not to put a human face on the casualties, lest shrinking the state workforce sound like what it really is: firing decent people from middle-class jobs, throwing families into an economic sinkhole from which they may never escape.

Thankfully, the 120 soon-to-be-laid-off employees at New Jersey Network have a nose for news and big hearts. Weeks before the public television station goes dark, workers hope telling their story may spare a vulnerable coworker: associate producer Michell Basalik, who's battling breast cancer.

Sure, the NJN crew might prefer to talk about the blasphemy of handing over the voice of the Garden State to WNET in . . . New York.

But the work family has donated nearly a year's worth of sick time to Basalik, assistance that disappears with her job. Anchor Jim Hooker is rarely prone to dramatic proclamations, but he makes an exception for the tireless young mother who lit up the newsroom.

Hers, he declares, "is a life-and-death situation."

Pulling the plug

Christie has long blanched at what he calls the "irresolvable conflict" of paying state employees to report on state government. He's right about that being "strange," but so is a state of eight million people without a television station.

The deal to pull the plug on NJN and hand over the cameras will reportedly save New Jersey just $11 million. The layoffs take effect July 1, barring a reprieve from a Legislature preoccupied with banning teenagers from indoor tanning.

At a heated hearing last week, Christie officials said dozens of NJN staffers will retire or be absorbed into other departments, cutting the layoff list by half. That theory gave the newsroom a laugh.

"I have no idea what I'm doing on June 30 other than being laid off," says NJN vet Michael Aron, dean of the Trenton press corps.

Executive assistant Judy Goetz is 58 and has 26 years on the job, but won't be able to survive on her pension. And yet, NJN employees, with the exception of one electrician, are discovering their skills don't translate in Trenton. They read, then delete, job postings like Court Executive in the Judiciary Department, which pays up to $115,991 but requires extensive management experience or a law degree.

"They sent us a listing for a Zamboni operator," muses Emmy-winning photographer Tim Stollery.

Governor, if you're reading, how many Zamboni operators does the state employ? Will they, too, be iced?

A mother lode

Basalik, a 35-year-old from Feasterville, began at NJN as a volunteer while studying TV production at Kutztown University.

A decade later, her $60,000 salary and benefits carry her family. When she's forced onto disability, she'll collect less than half that. Unable to pay $1,800 a month for COBRA, she hopes to continue treatment on a Pennsylvania program for uninsured cancer patients.

"I got the diagnosis at work on Valentine's Day," Basalik tells me: stage three, an aggressive 8-centimeter tumor. Aron and Goetz drove her home, where her contractor husband, Rob, was waiting.

Basalik produced the news through three rounds of chemotherapy before her immune system became too weak and doctors ordered her to rest. After delivering two daughters in two years, she had few sick days, so coworkers donated the maximum (260) to cover a double mastectomy and recovery.

"Obviously, if I'm laid off, there's no way I can use them," Basalik laments. But she can't donate the days to other sick workers either.

More savings! Just what the governor ordered.


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or philly.com/kinney. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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