After the #PayUpHollywood hashtag arose on Twitter a month ago and highlighted stagnant wages and demeaning work conditions, assistants and labor advocates revealed new statistics on the industry’s entry-level employees and debriefed California employment law at the movement’s first town hall on Sunday in Los Angeles.
At a packed screening room on Wilshire Boulevard between the Miracle Mile and Koreatown, 120 lower-ranking industry employees and other attendees listened to #PayUpHollywood organizers also outline their strategy for the next few months and offer their thoughts on how the industry’s assistant structure could be improved. Over 100 tuned into the event’s live stream, which was available via CNT Productions’ YouTube channel and Facebook page.
The event’s organizers and the day’s speakers came armed with initial data from the #PayUpHollywood assistant survey, which they revealed 1,100 people had taken since it was created in mid-November. Full results from the survey will be revealed in early December. Liz Alper, a television writer, WGA board member and founder of the #PayUpHollywood hashtag, announced that, per initial results, 62.76 percent of survey takers made less than $50,000 a year before taxes. In order to not be considered “rent-burdened” in Los Angeles, an individual must make $53,600 after taxes a year or over. Eighty-eight percent were considered “rent-burdened” in Los Angeles.
Alper added that, contrary to in previous generations in Hollywood, assistants are staying in assistant positions for years. Forty-seven percent of survey takers had been assistants for three or more years, while 21 percent had been assistants for more than five years.
Many are also taking side gigs in order to pay bills: 67.17 percent of survey takers reported having to take work outside their entertainment jobs to supplement their income in order to survive. Almost half of all assistants in the industry were receiving financial help from their parents.
When it came to feelings of anxiety, 91.54 percent of survey takers said their work conditions led to increased feelings of anxiety.
Alper was joined onstage at the town hall by JKH Consulting president Jamarah Hayner, who is working with #PayUpHollywood to shape policy efforts; Aladdin writer John August, whose podcast Scriptnotes inspired the hashtag with a discussion about assistant pay; Young Entertainment Activists’ (YEA) president Allison Begalman; and Jennifer Kramer and Toni Jaramilla of the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA), which will be working with #PayUpHollywood on labor-abuse cases moving forward.
Only the event’s organizers revealed their full names during the town hall, while attendees who participated in the Q&A section of the event were not filmed on the live stream in order to protect identities and prevent employer retaliation. The event covered entertainment industry assistants in desk jobs, rather than on-set jobs.
In his introduction to the event, August mentioned common themes he noticed when assistants wrote in to the Scriptnotes podcast to discuss their jobs. Most, he said, had college degrees; had taken assistant jobs as starters jobs; and reported “tremendous” expenses expected to work their jobs including paying for a work-appropriate wardrobe, a car and gas, movie tickets and streaming subscriptions. Alper noted that, at present, only assistants from particular socioeconomic backgrounds are able to participate in the system. “The best way we can introduce diversity into our ranks is if we start paying for it,” she said.
Hayner, who has previously worked with Kamala Harris, Michael Bloomberg and the “Fight for 15” movement, acknowledged that employers often tell their support staff about their own time as assistants to legitimize the current labor situation as part of a regular pay-your-dues culture. “That is also not the Los Angeles of 2019. I think [there are] people who are well-meaning but uninformed out there,” she said. “Combat the misinformation with facts.”
Organizers said that they hoped to determine a “livable wage” in Los Angeles for entertainment assistants from survey results that would take into consideration expenses that come with the job. (Alper mentioned that she herself had gone into $20,000 of credit card debt after one assistant job.) At the end of the town hall, they gave attendees and viewers “homework” so they could help determine that figure: to log all of their living expenses and their take-home pay for a month or two and send the end results to #PayUpHollywood at their email address.
Later in the event, Kramer and Jaramilla from CELA spent a few minutes discussing basic labor law in California and how it might apply to common assistant complaints in the industry. Kramer noted that participation in the town hall itself was “protected under Labor Code 923.” She added that any employee is entitled to expense reimbursements, and that even if individuals in the room did not think they wanted to file a legal complaint now or in the future, they should “document, document, document.”
Jaramilla added that an employer can’t “make you patronize a movie” and that when employees are asked to keep inaccurate timesheets, texts and emails can serve as proof of hours worked. Also: “You have a right to talk about the terms and conditions of employment under the labor code.”
#PayUpHollywood will be forwarding appropriate cases to CELA and also be referring sexual misconduct cases to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which connects sexual harassment, assault and retaliation survivors with lawyers in their state and offers them a free legal consultation.
During the Q&A portion of the event, organizers discussed mental health and burnout, assistants working for multiple bosses and doing jobs above their pay grade. One script coordinator (The Hollywood Reporter will not be identifying attendees’ names to prevent employer retaliation) noted that Local 871 has set a minimum rate of payment for unionized employees like herself. Alper responded that she was talking to two representatives from the union about how the two organizations might work together.
When another attendee asked about how to bring up the pay conversation to their bosses, organizers said that they hope the data from their survey (and from assistants’ logging of personal expenses), among other efforts, can help pay negotiations. Hayner added that she would like to receive stories from assistants about “what’s gone right,” “what has gone and is currently going wrong” and stories of retaliation that #PayUpHollywood can share to change minds.
Begalman asked attendees to organize via YEA’s “Hollywood Pipeline” committee. By 2020, the advocacy organization plans to debut an “AA-style” support group for assistants with a trained facilitator (participants will have to sign NDAs and phones will be prohibited from the event to protect privacy).
Moving forward, #PayUpHollywood is also planning on creating various “town halls” to discuss specific labor situations including assistants at agencies, in the writers room and in production, personal assistants who work for individuals, unions, insurance issues and nondisclosure agreements.
“Always think about yourself as the protagonist in this story,” August concluded. “Sometimes when you think of yourself as the hero in this story, that helps [with scary challenges].”
When #PayUpHollywood first announced the town hall on Nov. 17, tickets sold out in less than 45 minutes.