How Hollywood Can Step Up Now to Help Support Staff (Guest Column)

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While crowdfunding efforts may help, the best way to protect assistants is by encouraging employers to keep them on the payroll wherever possible, write #PayUpHollywood founder Liz Alper and screenwriter John August.

In October 2019, John and his co-host Craig Mazin started talking about the problem of low assistant pay on the Scriptnotes podcast. Listeners sent in stories of unpaid overtime, blithe bosses, and having to cover writers’ lunch bills.

These issues weren’t new. Having been assistants themselves, they recognized that long hours and low pay were the norm. Our industry has a “pay your dues” culture in which bright young minds toil for far less than market rates in order to climb their way up the ladder.

But as they heard more of these stories — and researched the hard numbers — it became clear that the ladder was broken. Assistant wages had remained stagnant while Los Angeles had become vastly more expensive. Assistant pay had gone from unfortunate to unsustainable.

Meanwhile, TV writers Liz and her co-founder Deirdre Mangan had created the hashtag #PayUpHollywood to build awareness surrounding the struggles of Hollywood support staff. The hashtag turned acknowledgement into activism; at a town hall in November, Scriptnotes and #PayUpHollywood spoke with legal and political advisors on the best ways to effect change. Following up, we surveyed assistants to find out how much they were really making versus what they needed. We asked them to submit expense reports that tracked their income in versus out.

We started to have an impact. Assistants and other support staffers wrote in about how showrunners and supervisors were standing up for them in negotiations with business affairs. Talent agencies including Verve and CAA raised support staff rates and implemented new programs to help assistants. Lines of communication between support staff and supervisors in all areas of the industry were opening up.

In January, we identified a stunning — but unsurprising — trend from the assistant-submitted expense reports; none of the submitters could cover the cost of living in Los Angeles on their take home pay alone. Only a handful made enough to pay their bills, much less put extra into savings. They either had parental/spousal support or a dwindling pile of savings supplementing their monthly income. Almost all were one car accident, one medical emergency, or one lost week of pay away from terrible financial hardship.

And then a global pandemic hit.

Assistants and support staff went from underpaid to unemployed as productions shut down and offices closed. The need for financial support was immediate. Unemployment benefits, if you qualified, were not sustainable. We heard from people facing the choice of paying for rent or food, paying student loans or utility bills.

There were small rays of hope. Showrunners like Carina Adly Mackenzie (Roswell, New Mexico) were giving extra financial assistance to their support staffs out of pocket and taking care of them in other ways. But many assistants desperately needed relief and found there was nothing for them.

We created the Hollywood Support Staff COVID-19 Relief Fund (and the #SupportOurSupportStaffs campaign on social media) with the goal of raising $100,000 to offer support staffers who qualified for a modest stipend: a one-time payment of $450 for those eligible for unemployment, or $900 for those who weren’t. We knew we couldn’t solve everyone’s financial anxieties, but we could ease the burden of an overlooked community. We didn’t just want to raise money; we wanted to raise awareness in Hollywood of the hundreds who were suffering. We launched the GoFundMe campaign and asked for the industry for help.

In response, the entertainment community, from CEOs and creators to PAs, raised more than $500,000 (from GoFundMe and outside sources) in three days. We now had the funds to help more than twice as many people as projected, and were we able to increase the stipends for all qualified applicants by 15 percent to 33 percent.

It is exhilarating. It is not enough.

If we as an industry don’t do more to protect our support staff during this crisis, we risk losing a generation of talent. The next Shonda Rhimes is a laid-off script coordinator who may need to move home to Texas if she can’t pay rent. The Oscar-winning directors of 2035 are PAs in post-production, in offices or on set today. The burgeoning gains we have made in diversity and inclusion will disappear as hopefuls from historically underprivileged backgrounds are unable to afford their low assistant salaries after this long furlough.

You will see more crowdfunding initiatives in the coming days. Support them if you can. But we should never rely on crowdfunding to provide long-term financial support throughout an industry-wide shut down. The best way to protect support staff and the rest of our industry is by encouraging their employers to pay them. Companies must find ways to keep staff on the payroll wherever possible. Productions in limbo need to make decisions that protect their workers over their bottom line. The same skills that make Hollywood run on time can help organize the battle against COVID-19, so if someone’s normal work can’t be done at home, pay them for their work for charitable causes, including organizing the response to this national emergency. State and federal action is also essential. California Rep. Adam Schiff is urging Congress to include protections for those who have lost work due to coronavirus-related cancellations and postponements in the entertainment industry in the next relief bill. When he calls for action, be ready.

As a community, we have proven ourselves to be an industry that cares, who will not leave behind the most vulnerable in a time of need. We hold telethons to help the victims of natural disasters. We hold leaders to account for their promises. Now we need to step up for our own people. Companies must take responsibility for the well-being of thousands of entertainment workers waiting for relief, both by paying them when possible and making sure state and federal relief covers their work.

Liz Alper is a TV writer and co-founder of grassroots organization #PayUpHollywood, and John August is a screenwriter and co-host of the Scriptnotes podcast.

This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.