Unions, Theater Owners Call for Emergency Relief for Entertainment Workers

Wilshire Los Angeles March 17 2020
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A workers' coalition asks that "direct cash plans should exceed $1,000 a month" while exhibitors are looking for loan guarantee programs, among other priorities.

A coalition of more than a dozen entertainment unions are joining efforts to press Congress to ask for an emergency relief bill that includes direct cash payments of more than $1,000 a month for workers, as well as the extension of unemployment benefits and a provision for paid sick leave, among other priorities. 

"In a state like California, weekly benefits for creative professionals range from $40 to $450, which is not enough to weather this crisis — and far below what creative professionals would be earning if they could work," stated Jennifer Dorning, president of Department for Professional Employees.

The effort is being coordinated by Department for Professional Employees, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Among the unions involved in the effort are SAG-AFTRA, IATSE, Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America East, Actors’ Equity Association, American Federation of Musicians and others. 

Also on Friday, movie theater owners outlined their ask to Congress for relief for exhibitors. The National Association of Theatre Owners said that it is looking for loan guarantee programs, small business interruption loans, payroll tax deferrals and tax loss carryforwards to help its members. 

"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," lobbying group NATO said.

The economic hit to many entertainment workers, those of whom are part of the gig economy, has been steep already. An estimated 120,000 jobs have been lost for IATSE members, per guild correspondence. 

On March 18, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act was signed into law by the president. The Department for Professional Employees, however, notes that "its paid sick leave and childcare leave provisions only apply to a limited number of still-employed arts, entertainment and media professionals."

And IATSE stated on March 19 that the Families First bill "will provide relief to workers in other industries, the provisions on the table for emergency paid leave benefits won’t apply to displaced entertainment workers because of the requirements for days worked on a job to qualify."

Another bill, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), was introduced by Republicans in the Senate on March 19 and includes a $1,200 per person cash payment for individuals making under $75,000. 

Outside of funds from the federal government, the industry beginning to mobilize with private efforts. Netflix said it has established a $100 million relief fund for entertainment workers, NATO said it will offer $1 million to movie theater employees who are out of work, while IATSE committed $2.5 million to the Actors Fund, the Motion Picture and Television Fund, and the Actors Fund of Canada. The guilds and affiliated non-profits have tapped emergency funds as well.

In a letter addressed to House of Representatives leadership on March 19, several dozen members of Congress singled out entertainment industry freelancers for relief help, noting, "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."

The Department for Professional Employees coalition included the following provisions that it is asking the federal government to include in relief legislation:

- Provide states with dedicated funds to increase unemployment benefits and extend the number of eligible weeks beyond 26 weeks, similar to what was done during the 2008 recession.

- Access to unemployment benefits for the many creative professionals who rely on contract work, tipped jobs, or their own small business to supplement their income and earn a living.

- Continue enhancing the Unemployment Compensation system, including for those who lose expected work because their productions are shut down.

- Direct cash to affected workers and self-employed individuals that’s unrestricted, sent bi-weekly, and not tied to actual lost wages, work histories, or federal tax obligations.

- Direct cash plans that consider the number of children a worker has to care for.

- The benefit amount for direct cash plans should exceed $1,000 a month, due to the cost of living throughout the country. For example, in New York the estimated cost for a family of four is $6,976 and in Birmingham, Alabama the estimated monthly costs for a family of four is $3,434. Both figures are much higher than existing unemployment benefits provide.

- Enhancements to SNAP and WIC food programs.

- Provide paid sick leave, mortgage and rent payment relief, student loan payment waivers, credit reporting moratoriums, and childcare assistance.  

March 20, 1:07 pm PST Updated to include theater owners' call for stimulus legislation as well as clarification that the Department of Professional Employees is semi-independent from the AFL-CIO.