CBS TV Studios Walks Back Retroactive Cuts to Assistant Pay

The CBS logo - CBS Building, headquarters of the CBS Corporation, in New York City on August 6, 2018 - Getty-H 2019
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Under California labor law, employees must be paid overtime rates (time and a half) for any hours worked over eight hours in a day and 40 hours in a week.

CBS Televisions Studios has walked back a prior claim that it is retroactively cutting assistant hours for the week of March 22-28 and cutting hours for March 29 to April 4 as media companies are looking to tighten their budgets amid the coronavirus economic fallout.

In an email sent late Tuesday afternoon, Ellen Goldsmith, senior vp human resources, says she wanted to “clarify and correct” two emails sent to assistants that morning: “Currently, there are no plans to limit or cap your working hours to 40 hours per week. We are continuing to require written pre-approval for hours worked in excess of 52 hours per week.”

The email also stated that the studio had no intention of changing overall pay that assistants had already worked retroactively, and that the studio planned on being in compliance with California labor law.

This CBS email marked a stark change in tone from the message conveyed in earlier emails to support staff, which sent them to social media forums in distress earlier on Tuesday. 

"I just received notice that starting this week (week ending 4/4/20) everyone will get 40 hours even if you have an OT approval letter," an analyst in development finance at CBS Television Studios in Los Angeles wrote Tuesday morning in an email to assistants. "As for your OT worked last week (week ending 3/28/20), all your hours will be reduced to 52." Many assistants, who tend to be hourly employees, regularly work at least 60 hours per week and depend on overtime rates for their livelihoods.

"Till further notice, starting week ending 4/4/20, all timecards should be turned in with ONLY 40 hrs.," a production coordinator added in an email also sent on Tuesday. "Any hours passed will not be approved and will be returned to you for adjustment. No overtime will be approved even with an approval letter attached."

The emails, which first surfaced in a tweet by showrunner's assistant Olga Lexell, were confirmed with multiple assistant sources by The Hollywood Reporter

Under California labor law, employees must be paid overtime rates (time and a half) for any hours worked over eight hours in a day and 40 hours in a week. Employees must even be paid for unauthorized overtime; however, an employee can be disciplined for exceeding internal overtime rules. Employees who are not paid for overtime they have worked are eligible to file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

"Under California law, hourly employees must be paid for all time worked. Period. If they work overtime, they must be paid for that overtime. Period. Whether or not CBS wants people to stop working overtime, they still must pay any overtime actually worked under current law," labor lawyer Kevin Ruf, a partner at Los Angeles' Glancy Prongay & Murray LLP who argued California's Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court on behalf of delivery drivers, wrote in a statement when apprised of the situation.

"We're very upset and discussing amongst ourselves what to do. I know that a group of assistants is being created as we speak to discuss how we'll handle it," one CBS assistant source tells THR. "We collectively don't believe that the people who sent the emails are the ones who made the decision, they're just the messengers for a decision that was made further up the food chain."

"My co-worker and I called each other in tears this morning, wondering what we could possibly do to stay afloat. We're checking on our friends, who are also in panic mode," says another assistant source. "We all know that our bosses will be fine if they have to take a pay cut. They'll still have a place to live and food to eat and a car to drive. But when you're making minimum wage in one of the most expensive cities in the country, losing almost half of your income can ruin you."

The news also sent shock waves throughout the #PayUpHollywood community, which advocates for better pay and treatment of support staff in entertainment. "We’ve been hearing by more and more stories of assistants losing pay everyday at different companies," tweeted #PayUpHollywood co-founder Liz Alper. "Many are hurting but these workers especially live hand to mouth. Take care of them. Urge the companies to do so too."

March 31, 3:51 p.m. Updated story and headline with CBS' response to its earlier email on assistant pay.