Commentary: Prod'n assistants need pay
Workers should get protections from unions, labor boardThey are Hollywood's migrant workers, the gofers, the errand boys, the Girls Friday. They are Hollywood's production assistants, the lowest-paid workers on the set -- if paid at all -- and the only ones without a union, the only ones no union even wants to bother with. In Hollywood's caste system, they are the untouchables.
These PAs work in nearly every phase of production and postproduction, and sometimes their employers break the law by not even paying them.
There are transportation production assistants (the Teamsters don't want them); camera PAs (the Photographers Guild doesn't want them); costume PAs (the Costumers Local doesn't want them); office PAs (the Office Workers Local doesn't want them); and art department PAs (the Art Directors union doesn't want them, either).
Production assistants have five things in common: They're young, they're multitaskers, they're trying to break into show business, they wear earpieces on the set so they can be yelled at from afar -- and they all have stories of abuse. Our estimate is that, at any given time, there are hundreds of such people in Hollywood that fit the PA description.
One production assistant tells of being ordered to run into a burning building to deliver scripts -- a real building that actually was on fire! Another tells of being screamed at because she didn't bring back enough chips from the lunch run to a Mexican restaurant. "How f***ing stupid are you?" the production coordinator shrieked.
Sexual abuse is not uncommon, either. Last year, ESPN baseball analyst Steve Phillips was fired after it was revealed that he had an affair with a 22-year-old production assistant. The PA, natch, was fired, too.
Most PAs work for $10 an hour or less and often at minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. But some low-budget producers think they don't have to pay their production assistants at all. Craigslist and Mandy.com, a jobs board for the entertainment industry, are full of ads seeking production assistants who will work for nothing.
As one anonymous PA blogger noted recently, "I've been combing Craigslist and Mandy.com for a while and I tend to notice that, like, every single ad or call for a PA is indefinitely nonpaying."
One way producers think they can get around state and federal minimum-wage laws by not paying production assistants anything is to call them "interns."
A recent want-ad on Mandy said: "Our production interns will handle appearance releases, assist crew with gear, and everything in between. The days are 10 hours long. We are not able to provide compensation, but your lunch will be paid for on every workday. This is a fast way to gain some amazing experience for your resume!"
Trouble is, the law governing use of unpaid interns is clear: Unpaid interns can't perform work that is of any benefit to the company, which clearly was not the case with the employer in the want ad.
Labor law also requires that unpaid interns receive school credit for their internships, and even then they can't do work that normally would be performed by a paid worker. Answering phones, making copies, running errands or any of a thousand other tasks normally performed by paid workers is not permitted.
But that doesn't stop producers from trying.
Another ad for an unpaid production assistant "intern" said: "The heart of the Internship will focus on researching information and gathering visual content, but you will also help with the public relations side of filmmaking, which is not taught at most film schools. This is an unpaid internship."
A similar ad on Craigslist read: "Looking for experienced production assistant for upcoming feature-length film shoot in Missouri. Great for your resume! We are looking for those who feel comfortable with/and have: Camera/equipment knowledge; camera set up, working closely with DP; lighting set up; transporting equipment and heavy lifting. Compensation: no pay."
Still another recent Craigslist ad sought production assistant "interns" for a feature film shooting in and around Ione, Calif. "We will be needing production assistants for daytime prepping of the location. This is a nonpaid position. You will be responsible for assisting director and producers, which means anything from running errands to helping with the meals."
Clearly, these all are violations of state and federal minimum-wage laws that leave the employers exposed to complaints to the State Labor Board.
In California, such complaints can be filed with the state's Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.
If no union wants to protect Hollywood's production assistants, maybe the State Labor Board will.
The only good news recently for PAs is that the new federal healthcare reforms require large employers to provide healthcare coverage for all their employees.
So maybe the next time a PA is forced to run into a burning building, at least her medical treatment will be covered.
David Robb is a regular commentator for The Hollywood Reporter. He has covered Hollywood's unions for more than 20 years and is the author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.