SAG-AFTRA Slashes Residuals Processing Time (Exclusive)

What used to take three months now takes about three weeks, and the union vows to stay on top of the process even as the number of residuals checks balloons.

SAG-AFTRA has managed to resolve one of actors’ most bitter complaints about their union – slow residuals checks – by cutting processing time from an average 91 days last August to a low-20’s figure by the end of this month, The Hollywood Reporter has learned, beating a 30-day time frame that the organization had targeted. That accomplishment came despite rapid growth in the number of checks processed.

Residuals checks are sent from studios, production companies and payroll processors to SAG-AFTRA, the WGA and DGA. Data from the paper checks is scanned or entered into union computer systems, then the checks are mailed to the union member or his or her agent. It’s not small potatoes: across all unions, entertainment residuals total roughly $2 billion per year by THR’s estimate. SAG-AFTRA alone processed 3.5 million checks last year, about a 20 percent increase over 2012’s 2.9 million checks.

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“Once we concluded our post-merger integration process and moved to restructure our staff and operations last spring, we were then able to focus on longstanding problems that faced both unions in the past,” said national executive director David White. “The remarkable – and sustainable – improvement in our residuals processing times is a result of this intense focus and superb execution by our teams. My intent is to address additional problem areas at SAG-AFTRA in a similar manner.”

A union source said that the increased output has been sustained for the past five months and that the union believes technology and process improvements will help keep on top of the volume. The source identified staff weekend and overtime work, workflow improvements, improvements in the scanning process, automation with studios and addressing technology reliability issues as key drivers of the increased output.

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The SAG-AFTRA residuals department includes about 50 people, and four specialized scanning systems nicknamed Rocky, Bullwinkle, Natasha and Boris.

“We know how important timely processing of residuals is to our members and getting their checks out faster is the goal,” said the union’s chief information officer, Daniel Inukai. “We brought a ‘big team’ approach to looking at process, technology and workflow efficiencies that would minimize the climbing volumes and system complexities that were causing residuals processing delays. Staff from departments across the organization came together to meet the goal and we all take great pride in the progress made to date. And we’ll continue to work hard to keep up with the ever increasing volume.”

The cut in residuals processing time first came to THR’s attention in an email from a union member and was then confirmed by the union.

The good news in residuals processing comes at a critical juncture for SAG-AFTRA. Long-time chief White acknowledged in February that he may leave to take the top job at the NBA Players Association, a position for which he was reportedly one of two finalists – by some reports, the favored one. However, there’s been no news on that front in four weeks, leaving the union a bit in limbo. Meanwhile, an attempt by SAG-AFTRA to regulate the conduct of talent managers seems to have crashed and burned: amid vituperative condemnation of the voluntary regulatory Code by managers associations, only two managers have signed on to the three-week old Code, representing less than one-tenth of one percent of all talent managers in the country.

Coming up next for the union are negotiations with the studios for a new three-year contract. Those negotiations are likely to be tough, since the union is expected to seek to unify its legacy SAG and AFTRA television agreements, equalize wage rates between the two, and harmonize the relationship between the corresponding legacy pension and health plans. All of that in addition to seeking wage increases, P&H increases, improving new media provisions (the union may look for better provisions than were obtained in January by the DGA, but is likely to end up with what the DGA got) and accommodating the needs of the union’s diverse constituencies (principal actors, background players, stunt people, singers, dancers and others).

Talks are not yet scheduled, but are likely to start in April or May; the current pact expires June 30. Whether White will still be on staff to serve as chief negotiator is not yet known.

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