“We just want our members to have the same access to what is being offered as what any 9-to-5 employee can get,” Caroline O’Connor of SAG-AFTRA Foundation says
Though the offices of Hollywood’s guilds and companies may be closed, they are all flooding Capitol Hill with phone calls and emails as Congress races to build federal aid packages in the face of a coronavirus-fueled recession. As House Democrats prepare to build a broader stimulus bill for passage this week and Republicans try to push through their Senate bill, the entertainment industry and its workers are fighting to make sure they are not left out.
For now, the majority of the relief that Hollywood will receive from Washington, especially for movie theaters, are part of more general, sweeping programs that are being ironed out as the American economy sinks into a pandemic-fueled recession. But the provisions for the unique nature of how writers, directors, actors and filming crews make ends meet will be essential.
“We just want our members to have the same access to what is being offered as what any 9-to-5 employee can get,” SAG-AFTRA Foundation communications director Caroline O’Connor told TheWrap. “We’ve been in very close contact with lawmakers that represent the areas many of our members live and work in, and we feel really optimistic that they will be able to bring answers for our concerns.”
SAG-AFTRA — along with all of the top Hollywood guilds like IATSE, Writers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America, and the American Federation of Musicians — have been working together with the AFL-CIO to push for provisions in the upcoming third phase of federal funding that would allow workers to access government aid even though many of them do not have jobs that meet the standard definitions of employment.
“With productions cancelled across all sectors of the entertainment industry, the COVID-19 situation has become so dire for entertainment workers that it requires decisive action from the federal government,” read a statement from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). “Entertainment gig workers who expected to work for a day, week, month, or season on a production are finding themselves without planned wages and benefits.”
This past week, President Donald Trump signed into law the $100 billion Families First Coronavirus Testing Act. Along with providing funding for food assistance and state unemployment insurance programs, the new legislation provides a paid-leave benefits program that provides aid to some workers. However, many creative workers who work on all levels of production on film and television would not qualify for this program, as written.
“One of the qualifications for the program is a minimum number of days on a job, and that can vary greatly for anyone in our guild or in this industry,” O’Connor said. “Entertainment workers move from project to project and can sometimes go weeks without taking on a new project. Many in Hollywood were working on or about to start a new project when the pandemic arrived, and now that money they thought was coming may be gone.”
AFL-CIO and the Hollywood guilds put out a joint statement proposing a benefit plan similar to the one passed in the Families First Act, but specifically designed to allow entertainment workers in industry hotspots like California, New York and Georgia to access them. They have also asked for the program to calculate benefits based on anticipated wages lost instead of past wages from their 2018 tax returns, as wages can greatly change for entertainment workers from year to year while many have lost needed paycheck from projects that have indefinitely paused production.
Burbank Congressman Adam Schiff, a major figure in the Trump impeachment trial, has been leading the push for these provisions on Capitol Hill, sending a letter co-signed by 36 House Democrats to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy urging them to not forget entertainment workers.
“As members representing many constituents who work in film, television, theater, and live music, we urge you to include protections for those who have lost work due to coronavirus-related cancellations and postponements in the entertainment industry,” Schiff’s letter read. “Due to the unique, sporadic nature of work in this industry, we believe that benefits provided to these workers should be calculated based on verifiable anticipated earnings for a current or future contract that has been cancelled, rather than prior wage history.”
Meanwhile, the National Association of Theater Owners has been lobbying hard for benefits for a movie theater industry that faces unprecedented instability. While individual relief programs can be accessed by a larger percentage of movie theater employees than of entertainment workers, many movie theaters have already faced difficulty making ends meet between rising costs and a reliance on tentpole blockbusters that studios take a larger percentage of ticket sales from.
On Friday, NATO sent out a memo to members outlining important benefits that the third phase of coronavirus will bring to theaters. Larger theater chains would be able to access loans that are being made available for “eligible businesses that have incurred losses, direct or incremental, as a result of coronavirus… and have not otherwise applied for or received economic relief in the form of loans or loan guaranteed as provided by law.” Given that movie theaters will lose hundreds of millions in profit from the delayed release of films like “A Quiet Place Part II,” they would certainly fit in that category.
Meanwhile, independent theaters that were already facing difficult situations before the pandemic will be able to apply for loans of up to $10 million with the Small Business Association to pay for costs like rent, utilities and employee salaries and paid leave. The pending legislation will also delay corporate tax payments to October and allow businesses to defer half of their payroll tax to 2021.
“We urge passage of this legislation that will help ensure the survival of the culturally and economically vital movie theater industry and its employees, and the thousands of public-facing businesses like it through this unprecedented crisis,” NATO wrote. “We also urge Congress and the Administration to continue to develop and pass measures that provide direct relief to our 150,000 workers not covered by this legislation and the potentially millions of Americans like them to help them until this crisis has passed and they can return to work in the industries that this legislation helps keep whole.”