Hollywood Guilds Tap Emergency Funds for Workers, But That May Not Be Enough

The TCL Chinese Theatre - March 15 2020 - Getty - H 2020
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Filing for unemployment or disability benefits is an option for some, and the unions are urging the federal government to do more.

Hollywood unions, guilds, health plans and affiliated non-profits have activated emergency funds to aid members and others as the coronavirus halts production industrywide — but the money and other assistance may not match the need, leaving entertainment workers, many of them gig-based, precariously dependent on government relief and employer largesse.

Large swaths of the industry are now shuttered, and cinema chains have gone dark in the wake of a federal guideline to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. For their part, executives throughout the business are also struggling to adjust amid the global pandemic, with many pointing to the guilds for questions about payments and shutdown policies.

Filing for unemployment or disability benefits is an option for some, and the unions are urging the federal government to do more. But there are other resources, for guild members and non-union workers alike. Some may be little-known or have a broader scope than obvious. The somewhat obscure Actors Fund, for instance, is not just for actors.

“[We are for] everyone in performing arts and entertainment,” said an Actors Fund spokesman. “People who work in film, television, theater, radio, opera, music, dance and more. We help on stage, on camera, behind the scenes and below the line. E.g., dancers, singers, press agents, camera operators, screenwriters, studio personnel, set decorators, directors, circus and many more.”

“Over the weekend, we have received more than 200 requests for financial assistance,” said the fund’s COO, Barbara Davis, “and we know that more people will need help.”

The fund also administers two SAG-AFTRA relief programs specifically for assistance to that union’s members, as SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris noted.

“It’s reassuring that the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and SAG-AFTRA Motion Picture Players Welfare Fund quickly took action to assist our members,” Carteris said in a statement. “In a time when all entertainment industry workers and workers around the country are facing this outbreak, we must take steps to help those in need. If you need help, ask. If you can help, give. It will take all of us.”

IATSE on Tuesday announced that it was contributing $2.5 million to The Actors Fund, the Actors Fund of Canada and the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which assists union and non-union workers alike.

Meanwhile, several other unions offer help, as well. The Directors Guild Foundation makes confidential interest-free loans to members in need. The IATSE National Benefit Funds is allowing annuity hardship withdrawals. Members of the American Federation of Musicians Local 47 (Los Angeles) can apply for small grants from the AFM Local 47 Emergency Relief Fund and the Music Fund of Los Angeles Emergency Relief Fund. The WGA has a resource page, but is not currently making grants or loans.

In addition, the DGA says it is fast-tracking residuals processing to get checks to members as fast as possible and a WGA spokesman says its turnaround time for residuals checks has been one to three days for over 15 years. SAG-AFTRA is continuing to process residuals, as well. And most of the industry health plans have waived copays and coinsurance for COVID-19 testing, where such testing is available (DGA, SAG-AFTRA, WGA, IATSE, MPIPHP).

For support staffers, #PayUpHollywood, Scriptnotes Podcast, Junior Hollywood Radio & Television Society (JHRTS) and YEA! have teamed to create the Hollywood Support Staff COVID-19 Relief Fund (apply; donate).

Government and Corporate Role

Government benefits are another resource. California has a COVID-19 information page on unemployment, reduced hours, paid family leave, paid sick leave and disability benefits (also here, and a chart; SAG-AFTRA explainer), and for coronavirus-related claims both the California and New York have waived the usual one-week waiting period. (Other states see here.) California also notes that workers misclassified as independent contractors may be eligible for benefits. And small businesses affected by the virus may be eligible for up to $2 million in federal disaster loans, while some tax filing deadlines have been or may be extended. Tax relief has been offered internationally, as well, and Europe is moving to support the entertainment industry with proposed bailouts and stimulus packages.

But no one expects existing programs to be adequate to an economic disaster that analysts say has already pushed the U.S., if not the world, into recession.

“The COVID-19 situation has become so dire for entertainment workers that it requires decisive action from the federal government,” said IATSE in an online petition. “Entertainment gig workers who expected to work for a day, week, month, or season on a production are finding themselves without planned wages and benefits. The bipartisan Families First Coronavirus Response Act … provisions … for emergency paid leave benefits won’t apply to displaced entertainment workers because of the requirements for days worked on a job to qualify. The unique nature of the entertainment industry means that many of the creative professionals may not work every day, or even every month.”

Added IATSE, “We need a special Emergency Coronavirus Economic Support Benefit geared to include workers who have a bona fide, good faith offer to work that gets canceled due to the coronavirus.” The AFL-CIO — on behalf of Actors Equity, AFM, the DGA, IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, the WGA East and other entertainment unions — is lobbying on Capitol Hill for such a benefit, with the support of Rep. Adam Schiff (D – Los Angeles), who tweeted his support.

What about the companies? The Hollywood Reporter has learned that Fox Corp. will cover employee medical insurance premiums for employees enrolled in Fox-sponsored plans and full-time staff union employees who receive medical coverage through union medical plans, and that full-time Fox employees are always eligible to receive full salary continuation for up to six months if on an authorized illness-related leave of absence.

But those policies seem to exclude most production workers, who form the creative backbone of the industry. Many feel that the entertainment conglomerates, although hard hit, should do more to support the workers they depend on. Said actor-showrunner Rob McElhenney in a series of tweets, “Here is what the most powerful people in our industry can do to help those in our community who need it most: Convince the studios to continue paying people during the shut-downs.”

Added the star, “Just shutting down without a plan is not an option.”

Lesley Goldberg contributed reporting.