Below-the-Line Hollywood Faces Sudden Unemployment Amid Coronavirus: "It's a Disaster"

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Most production employees are gig workers that don't receive healthcare from companies they work for and do not typically receive paid sick leave.

When gigs began being suspended or paused this month amid the coronavirus, Isabella Olaguera got concerned. The first assistant director, who has previously worked on multiple independent films, a Lifetime holiday movie and commercials for the WNBA, Equinox and Facebook, usually has a full work slate in March, and she wondered if she was alone in facing unemployment for the next few weeks. "This is the first March in 4 years I haven't had full time work lined up. The shoots I have are postpone[d] or in limbo," she posted Thursday to her Facebook. "Are any other freelancers a little nervous?"

Responses poured in, with reactions ranging from multiple hand-in-the-air emoji to stories of losing multiple jobs in the previous few days to downtrodden projections of prolonged unemployment. "Scary, y'all," one commenter said, summing up the tone of the conversation.

As the majority of Hollywood's major film and television wrap their current productions early, suspend them for weeks or pause them indefinitely in response to coronavirus fears, Hollywood's freelance, below-the-line employees are feeling the brunt of the industry slowdown. Unlike office workers, production employees cannot do their work from home or remotely.

And while most production employees are gig workers by nature, "below-the-line" workers — members of the crew — usually work hourly instead of for a lump sum and are paid less than "above the line" roles like directors, stars and producers. Like gig workers nationwide, these employees do not receive healthcare from companies they work for and do not typically receive paid sick leave.

In the last few days, showrunners including It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Rob McElhenney, Grey's Anatomy and Station 19's Krista Vernoff and Counterpart's Amy Berg have called for studios, showrunners and TV producers to keep their crews and assistants writing, working or at least paid amid shutdowns. Some have heeded that call, including UTV and Comcast, which are giving two weeks' pay to Chicago Fire crewmembers, and WarnerMedia, which did the same on Righteous Gemstones. Industry members have also created "relief fund" GoFundMes for particularly vulnerable populations, including pages, Hollywood support staff and musicians; the union IATSE announced on Tuesday that it had committed $2.5 million to several funds. On a broader scale, California and New York have implemented emergency policies — such as quicker access to unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions — to protect workers, while the coronavirus relief bill continues to make its way through Congress.

In spite of all these efforts, the dire straits that some workers suddenly find themselves in exposes the overall lack of financial and social safety nets for crew and support staff in Hollywood. And not content to rely on the largesse of individual showrunners, directors and companies, many of these workers are calling for better policies at an industry-wide and state and federal level.

Nonfiction showrunner and executive producer Johanna Vanderspool (Quest for the Fest) is a member of the NonFiction Professionals "Union," a group of New York and L.A.-based freelance nonfiction producers, a largely un-unionized workforce. Based on her own experience, those of friends and observations of the group's over 1,000 members over the past few days, "Freelancers have been let go, without consideration or pay relief," she says. (The documentary series Vanderspool was working on has also been put on hiatus.) She points out that these new difficulties add to an already trying past year amid the boom in scripted content for many freelance nonfiction producers, who have said typical rates for their work are decreasing. "I’ve already had a month of unemployment this year and it looks like another month will happen due to this COVID-19 crisis," Vanderspool says.

In New York and California, state governors have removed the typical weeklong waiting period to apply for unemployment insurance to account for people losing work over companies' coronavirus policies. However, the coronavirus is not only pausing and delaying projects that are staffed, but also those that have yet to hire more workers and move past the early development process. One freelance producer who preferred to remain anonymous and just wrapped a show for Fox has a few projects in development, but fears none of them will move forward amid COVID-19. "Jobs are getting canceled left and right, shows are stopping — it's a disaster," she says.

Freelance creative and line producer Jess Weiss (The Subject, The Volunteers) is concerned for how current coronavirus policies will reverberate in the future. All the companies she normally works with have paused production and implemented work from home policies; as for the development side of her job, companies are being careful with their finances and in-person meetings have been canceled due to the potential health risk. "My biggest concern is understanding when the industry will get back to normal again," she says. "March is usually the time for development and preproduction for summer projects, which is usually our busiest time. If that development isn't happening, the production will be delayed."

One stand-in and background actor who preferred to remain anonymous noted that March falls within pilot season, when companies greenlight series for the next few months. Given that the industry is currently shut down, "the television season will be altered and that delay in casting, filming, and greenlighting pilots will only mean I won’t have work for even longer. Will episode orders be shortened to try to get back on schedule? If so, we all will lose work again," she says.

Some productions aren't coming back at all, Weiss notes, just wrapping early (like The World of Dance and America's Got Talent). Some unscripted producers mentioned shows being canceled, but no specific details were immediately available. One key assistant location manager on a TV show who wished to remain anonymous is on one of those productions ending early: Her show is wrapping two and a half weeks earlier than initially planned due to the coronavirus. "Through my union I get paid a decent rate," she says. But without work, "after two to three weeks, it will get a little tight." She is most concerned about her production's production assistants, who get paid low rates and depend on continuous production work for income. "Because most of them, if they go without a paycheck for a week or two, that could mean whether they can pay rent or not," she says.

Paying rent is also a concern for a director of photography and cinematographer who preferred to remain anonymous. She says an upcoming project just pushed production to an undisclosed date, "and now I’m wondering how I’m going to pay my rent at the end of the month." Some states, including New York, Massachusetts and Kentucky, and cities, including Los Angeles, Seattle and Boston, have put a temporary moratorium on evictions during the pandemic; major utility companies have also committed to not shut off services for lack of payment during the coronavirus crisis. However, lost income in the next few weeks will make rent and other necessary payments difficult for some individuals, no matter how late those payments are pushed.

Overall, many crewmembers who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter expressed that they hoped this period would shine a light on the widespread use of freelancers in entertainment and the lack of benefits those freelancers receive. "In certain ways, I'm less worried about this than getting sick or something happening at any other time because this is such a concentrated, focused thing," says Amy Paulette Hartman, a writers' assistant on a CBS All Access Series and member of Local 871. (CBS has asked employees to work from home for two weeks; a federal coronavirus-specific bill that could provide workers with two weeks' worth of paid sick leave is currently making its way through Congress.) "Whereas I've been an assistant for a while and only recently have even the minimum union benefits I have now — it's sort of standard to not be protected as an assistant."

A freelance producer who preferred to remain anonymous pointed out that the virus will expose the prevalence of "day players" (workers paid by the day) on payroll at major companies. "There's these huge companies that have huge cash reserves and they just hire all these people as day players so they don't have to carry all the health and benefits, and then something like this happens and we have zero parachute at all," she says.

Most crewmembers who spoke with THR hope that the difficulties encountered during this crisis will result in better government policies for freelancers. As for what entertainment companies, organizations and unions can do, one member of IATSE pointed to the lack of paid sick leave unionized workers: "Overall, I think it's disappointing that our unions don't have any paid sick leave for us. In the past, I have personally come into work with a cold. … You have to at least make the effort, it seems, otherwise you're screwed out of a day." Another freelance producer, who preferred to remain anonymous, suggested using "our insurance policies to help everyone in the company, not just the company itself."

Says Kat Hazelton, a freelancer at film festivals and on film productions, "As an industry, we need to band together and support those at the bottom of the totem pole."