It’s Labor Day weekend – a time when most people frolic in the swimming pool, get drunk, barbeque and enjoy the last throes of summer before the rigors of school and work catch up with them. But did you know that without unions, we wouldn’t have this three-day-weekend to celebrate? I want to take time this weekend to talk about exploitation, and what led to the creation of these unions. Working in the film industry, you may encounter lots of different types of jobs – some union, and others, non-union. You need to be very, VERY aware of your rights if you work on non-union projects. Whereas the union has rules and regulations in place to protect you in the workplace, non-union work has practically nothing. You need to be forewarned about some of the shenanigans that people will try to pull – to know what is legal, and what is not! I will do my best to spell it out for you here.
Let me start by saying that no one in the entertainment industry has a monopoly on ethics – there are good producers and bad producers in both union and non-union environments. I have had the pleasure of working with some of the finest and most generous producers in the world on both union and non-union projects, and I have also had the misfortune of working with some of the vilest. We all have our horror stories. Producers in this sense make the decisions that affect the crew – at the end of the day, they are responsible for what gets accomplished, the number of hours worked, and how the crew is treated. When I speak of “production”, I mean all of the different forms of non-union employment: films, web series, music videos, commercials, television, and reality TV – because all of it is at play in today’s work landscape. Hopefully what follows here will help you make some informed decisions when you take on your next job.
DEFINITION OF WORK
First of all, let’s define work. On a union job, you must be a member in good standing of the union covering the work, in order to be “working”. In our case, that’s either IATSE Local 892, Costume Designers Guild, or IATSE Local 705, Motion Picture Costumers. There are also regional local unions that cover our work. For more on our specific unions, read HERE, HERE and HERE.
On a non-union project, you are “working” if you are getting paid for what you do. If you are getting paid on a deferred basis, it’s called “working for deferred pay”. If you are not paid but getting school credit, it’s called “interning”. If you are not getting paid AND you’re not getting school credit, it’s called “volunteering”.
What is deferred pay? Simply stated – if/when the project makes money (after it’s released), you make money. You need to agree to this up front, and in writing. Your deferment can either be a lump sum (if the movie makes a certain amount, you get $10K, etc) or it can be a percentage on the gross revenues (if the movie makes or surpasses a certain amount, you get a percentage of the total gross profits). Any deferred payment option needs to be IN WRITING and signed by both parties. Keep this document in a safe place in case you need it later.
These days, it would not be unusual for a very small non-union job to ask you to work solely for deferred pay. That means that you get ZERO dollars up front. You “volunteer” during prep, and you “volunteer” during the shoot/wrap. Is this legal?
You need to look closely at your deal memo. What’s a deal memo, you ask? It’s the paperwork you sign when you are hired on to a project. It should clearly outline the terms of your employment. In this case, the deal memo should mention that payment is on a deferred basis only, and that you and your work are covered by the insurance policy of the filmmaker/producers/production company. It is of paramount importance that you are covered by their insurance policy in case you are injured on the job!!! Do not agree to work on any project that does not agree to cover you under their liability insurance while you are performing work for them. If you are hit in the head by a falling light, THEY need to cover your hospital bills. Think about it! Check every deal memo to make sure this verbiage is in there.
If you are interning on a project, by definition you must be enrolled in school and getting school credit for your work. Proof of enrollment is generally required, because of the insurance liability issue. If you are interning on a project as part of your schooling, your SCHOOL covers you under their insurance. If you get hit by a falling light, the school foots your bills, not production.
If you are “volunteering” on a film for no money and no deferment, God help you. I would never, ever suggest this route to anyone. THIS is exploitation. You are working for free, and you are on your own if anything bad happens. Please, Frocktalkers, promise me that you will never do this. There is no upshot to “volunteering”. You are being taken advantage of, point finale.
DEFINITION OF WORK DUTIES
On a union film, there are pages and pages of descriptions in our handbook as to who does what. An 892 costume designer can’t pin garments; only a 705 member can. No one can put blood on the costumes except for a costume department representative. A Production Assistant (hereafter known as a PA) working on a union project cannot perform any duties otherwise covered by a union position. An intern cannot touch or do anything on a union project, only observe. The rules are very clear-cut and there is no wiggle room. In fact, if someone steps on your toes and breaks the rules, you can file a grievance (union legal action) against them, which carries a monetary fine. It’s serious.
In non-union work, there is NO handbook. Anyone can do anything. The sound guys can cut the pockets out of an actor’s pants to rig a microphone without even mentioning it. The director can pour a gallon of blood on your costumes and yell “action” as he runs away. The waters become muddy very quickly, and you have no recourse. In a non-union environment, it is up to the costume designer and the costume supervisor to define and enforce the job duties. Oftentimes on a show that is very low budget, PAs and interns can find themselves working as set costumers, tailors, age-dye techs, etc. Is this fair? Is this legal?
Technically, if you are being paid to work on a non-union project, you can do whatever needs to be done for the show. If you are an intern or volunteer, it is EXPLOITATIVE to ask you to work for no money in a position that would otherwise be filled by someone paid to do the work. Remember this! If you are interning or volunteering on a movie, and someone asks you to perform work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee, it is YOUR CHOICE to do, or not do, the work. I’m not going to tell you that you can’t do it – it can be a learning experience – but please keep in mind that this practice is exploitative and something I consider unfair. Non-union production often preys upon the naïveté of eager newcomers to the industry. They figure, “Everyone needs a break into the business, and we need the help-“ and then they suck you dry. Be very, very careful Frocktalkers.
You can try to make an argument that this scenario is some kind of “mutual exploitation”, in that you have something to gain (experience, a credit, exposure, etc) by working for free. My response: Hogwash/At your peril. Again, I’m not going to tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do it. I’m here to tell you that the practice is bull$h!t and that people are taking advantage of you. It’s your choice what to do with that information.
EXAMPLES OF EXPLOITATION
Frocktalkers, I have designed over fifty movies, and many other TV shows, pilots, music videos, commercials, and shorts. Here’s what I can tell you (from my own 20-plus years’ experience) having worked in both union and non-union environments. These examples are as recent as last week.
On a union show, as a costume designer, you are considered “management”, and you make a flat fee (no overtime) for work performed within a 5-day period. For work performed on a 6th day, you get “time and a half”, meaning your day rate times 1.5, and on a 7th consecutive day, you get “double time”, meaning your day rate times 2. On an 8th consecutive day, the clock re-sets, and you’re back to day one. Sadly, you don’t get additional money for being worked into the ground.
On a union show as a supervisor or set costumer, etc., you are on an hourly rate. You make $X/hour for the first 8, 10, 12, hours (depending on the contract), and after that you make “overtime”, which is usually time and a half. After you surpass the allotted hours of “overtime”, you make “double time”. After the allotted hours of “double time” you make “golden time”, which is your daily rate, PER HOUR. If you work an 18-hour day, you are making HUGE bucks. Are you starting to see why union work is a good idea?
On a non-union project, a costume designer gets a flat rate (because they are still considered a “manager” by the state of California), and any overages, in terms of 6th or 7th days, must be negotiated up-front, in writing, before the work begins. Set costumers are usually given a flat rate, agreed upon between the producer and the costumer. That flat rate is converted into an hourly rate, which is then BACKED INTO for your paycheck. That is to say – if you agree to be paid $1000/week, and you end up working five 14-hour days in a given week, your paycheck will reflect a configuration of hours that works out to be $1000 before taxes, irrespective of the particulars. You won’t necessarily see an accurate reflection of the 70 hours you worked. You might see 40 hours at $10/hour, 30 hours at $15/hour and 7.5 hours at $20/hour – I hate to say this, but sometimes, however they can make it work, they try. You might never have agreed to be paid a base rate of $10/hour, but your paycheck will often reflect that amount if the accounting department tries to back your flat rate into an hourly.
My advice: negotiate an hourly rate UP FRONT, in writing. Make sure you’re comfortable with it, and don’t accept a flat rate without discussing it first. Many non-union producers will try to sweeten the pot by offering “bumps” if shooting goes late. These “bumps” are usually small tokens, $20, $40, to keep people from crying and/or picking up and leaving. Look, it’s not easy to be a producer – don’t get me wrong. But there are GOOD producers and BAD producers out there, and you need to be savvy enough to make the distinction. It’s okay to make exceptions once in a while for a GOOD producer. You are exploited the day you start to make exceptions for a BAD producer.
Union work – for non-salaried employees (meaning, everyone who makes an hourly rate), you must break for a meal every six hours. Any overage – meaning, if they’re late to break you for lunch – means that you get money. Fifteen minutes late? Money. Thirty minutes late? More money. Non-union work? Sorry you’re hungry. Here’s a bottle of water.
Union work – breakfast and lunch are provided by production. Non-union work – often, it’s optional. Meals are provided because of the nature of our work – it’s hard to leave, our hours are wacky, and often we don’t have time to break for more than 30 minutes; we’re captive. I have worked on non-union jobs where there is no breakfast provided (not even craft services) and where you buy your own lunch – from the commissary, from a food truck, or where you go off-campus and forage. Meals are not a legal obligation on a non-union project on a sound stage; they are a custom. On location, working far away from civilization – yes, meals are provided… but their quality may vary. I worked with a producer once who brought a box of plain AM/PM hotdogs to set as a “meal”. When the (pregnant) star of the film asked for a vegetarian option, the producer pulled the hotdog out of the bun and handed her the bun with a smile. “Here you go,” he said. TRUE STORY. Be very careful, Frocktalkers. If you fear you might be in a situation like the aforementioned, pack a lunch. Oh yeah, and you might want to consider looking for a better job!
Note: you MUST take a lunch break within an 8-hour span of work, by law. In many other businesses, you must have not only a lunch break, but also two ten-minute breaks during the eight-hour work period. Our work is a bit different, but the idea of a mandatory lunch break remains. It is illegal for an employer to ask you to work straight through without breaking for a 30-minute lunch.
Shooting on Location:
Union work – it’s negotiated, but usually department heads (Costume Designers) fly first-class, are given a rental car on location, and are provided a place to stay (unique, not shared) that is comparable to other department heads. Crew are flown business class (at minimum, usually), given a rental car, and provided unique lodging for the duration of the show. Every crew member brought in from out of town receives PER DIEM (spending money) proportionate to living expenses in the area. The idea is that you can’t go home at night and cook yourself dinner if you stay in a hotel, so they are providing you a means to eat. Per diem in a big city is upwards of $100/day. Per diem in a rural area is $30/day and up. This is part of every union contract I have ever seen or worked on.
Non-union work – department heads and crew either fly coach or drive (sometimes driving production vehicles – trucks, etc). Depending on the budget, a rental car is given to one (or maybe two) members of the department to share, and crew members are provided a place to stay that may – or may not – be unique. You may be asked to share a hotel room, or to share a house with your crew, or to stay in a room in someone else’s home. Per diem is not necessarily required. I have current examples of non-union work in a big city where people were staying in a facility with no kitchen, had no transportation and no per diem with which to buy even a cup of coffee in the morning. When you’re not getting paid much (volunteering, working non-union, etc) the per diem is a make-it-or-break-it issue. To not be given even $30 just to feed yourself… that’s just cold, disrespectful and shamefully cheap, in my opinion.
My advice: Negotiate in advance, and in writing, every detail of your travel and lodging. Get a car. Get a unique hotel room. Get a decent per diem rate that covers ALL SEVEN DAYS of the week! Don’t let people take advantage of you.
Turnaround time means the amount of time between when you wrap and when you are required to come to work the next morning. Our department is unusual in that we are often the last to leave and the first to arrive, in order to prep for the day’s work. So, how much “time off” is fair?
Union work – turnaround time is negotiated for different situations. Are you shooting at a distant location? How much travel time is involved getting to and from work – all of these things are considered, but there is never less than 8 hours off. Usually we have at least 10 hours off – that’s pretty standard. Actors’ turnaround is 12 hours, so even with our “first-in, last-out” situation, we still get usually around 10 hours. Producers can force our call (bring us in early, before our turnaround is up) but they have to pay us a hefty penalty. I’ve only seen that happen once in 20 years, and it was a major payday for our costumers. But not for me. As a salaried employee (manager, non-hourly) I don’t get “forced call” benefits.
Non-union work – this is where it gets ugly. I have researched, pored over documents and websites, consulted lawyers, and can find NOTHING – no laws in any state – governing turnaround time for any industry, including entertainment. Basically, working non-union, you’re screwed. You can finish work at 3AM on Thursday and have to come in at 8AM on Friday, simple as that. You might be working with SAG actors (who still have the 12-hour turnaround clause in their contract) but production can call other actors (who wrapped earlier) to come in, and you still have to be there at 8AM. I am sorry to say that you have no legal recourse about this. As far as I’m concerned it’s a workplace safety issue to not have enough sleep.
Health and Safety:
Union work – your employer is required to provide you with a respirator mask, gloves, goggles, coveralls or any other safety equipment you need to do your job. Further, the union is required to provide you with safety training (the yawn-inducing seminars we must submit ourselves to every few years). But let me tell you – these things are GIFTS compared to non-union work. I’ll happily sit through a seven-hour monologue about liftgates to have the right to work on a union film.
Non-union work – From OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Regulations, Standard 1910.132: “Protective equipment, including personal protective equipment for eyes, face, head, and extremities, protective clothing, respiratory devices, and protective shields and barriers, shall be provided, used, and maintained in a sanitary and reliable condition wherever it is necessary by reason of hazards of processes or environment, chemical hazards, radiological hazards, or mechanical irritants encountered in a manner capable of causing injury or impairment in the function of any part of the body through absorption, inhalation or physical contact.”
What this means is that, no matter how much production cries poverty, they MUST, by LAW, provide you with safety gear in order for you to do your job. A cheap producer may try to take the cost of this gear out of your costume budget, but that’s when you start making a fuss, okay? Your health and safety should not come out of your mother-loving costume budget. Talk to the accountants to see if they can put these costs into another line item in their budget, if you really encounter resistance from the producer.
Out of Pocket Expenses:
For both union and non-union shows, you will need to spend production’s money to achieve your goal – delivering costumes. There are three things we need to discuss that will keep you, and your money, safe. Keep in mind, there are NO union rules governing petty cash or expenses – read carefully.
PETTY CASH (also known as PC) – this is money that production provides you, up-front, usually in cash. Sometimes when production has burned through a lot of cash, they will cut you a check… that you then have to take to your bank and cash. If you don’t have enough money in your bank account to cover the amount of the PC check, your bank will put a hold on he check, and you can’t have the money right away. LET THE ACCOUNTANTS KNOW if this is the case. Alternatively, you can go to the bank from which the check was drawn and attempt to cash it there for straight cash.
Let’s say that you have a PC advance of $2,000. You are prepping your show, and at the end of day three, you are about halfway through your $2,000. You do the math in your head, and you’ve spent about $1050. This is the time to turn your PC around. Why? Because sometimes, accounting gets backed up and it takes a few days for them to reimburse the expenditures. You don’t want to get caught with your pants down, having no money; so turn that PC around at the halfway mark if you can.
There is no “insurance” for PC, so if you lose cash, or God forbid, receipts, you are screwed and liable for the money personally. Remember that receipts are the same thing as money in the PC world, and if you lose the receipt, you are liable for the money. If you are robbed, report the incident to the police immediately and bring a copy of the police report to the producer. In cases like this, most ethical producers will understand. They will need a copy of the police report so that it can also be reported in production’s files and/or on the daily production report. If you do not report the theft to the police, you risk having production not believe you. No one wants to be disbelieved; just report it to the cops and do it right.
USAGE OF CREDIT CARDS – I will only say this once. Never, EVER, use your personal credit cards for work. Why? Because it is 2012, and production should be able to issue you a credit card from their account. It’s easy. They can issue you a pre-paid card (called a P-Card) with a limit: $1,000, $5,000, to $20,000. It is not complicated. Talk to the accountants and ask them for this. It’s not rocket science. We do it all the time.
If you put your own money into a show (and this is what you are doing by using your own credit card) you are FINANCING the project. And you know what you call someone who finances a project? A PRODUCER.
So you can make a nice, tidy case for it if you like – Either you issue me a credit/debit card, or you give me a producer credit – it’s as simple as that. This logic should give them something to chew on. No production company should EVER ask you to put up your own money for a project. It is 100%, completely unethical. I know so many people who have been burned (to the tune of $20,000+). They’ve gone to court, they fought, and they LOST. You know why? Because the judge told them that if they were stupid enough to use their own credit cards for work without written permission from the producers, they deserved to pay the price! Please learn from their cautionary tales. Do NOT use your personal credit cards for work.
REIMBURSEMENT– always make copies of all receipts (P-cards, cash, everything) and keep them on file. Keep a running tally of every PC envelope you submit to production with notation about when it was submitted and reimbursed. Most accountants are really good at their job, but occasionally things slip through the cracks, and you will need the backup in order to make your case. There is nothing worse than being stuck with $1500 in outstanding PC at the end of a show… and knowing that you turned in everything correctly! Save your receipts, keep a tally, and be very careful with your PC so that you are not personally liable.
The unions have very clearly defined wage guidelines, and they vary from contract to contract. Some low-budget contracts have set costumers making $20/hour, while on other contracts, the same job classification would make closer to $30/hour. Every contract is different. Most hourly employees do not have a lot of wiggle room to ask for more money, and most productions pay hourly employees scale (the required minimum) for that job category. Costume designers are a different story. With a good agent, a costume designer can command much more than scale, but the degree to which they are successful has to do with previous salary history, relationship with the filmmakers, etc. Nothing is set in stone, but there is a minimum pay rate as designated by the union, in any case, to protect the costume designer.
Non-union employees (and this means PAs, even on union projects) must make minimum wage, period. As of January 1, 2012, minimum wage in the state of California is $8/hour. You see how my example of $1000/week (base rate of $10/hour) fits into this scheme? It’s not so far off. Most low-budget non-union productions will pay in the area of $200 – $250/day. That’s not a lot when you break it down into an hourly wage. $1,000/week sounds great initially, but when you back it in to a 70-hour workweek? It’s not much after all.
PAs on bigger union shows tend to get paid in the $175 – $200/day range, and the numbers go down as the budgets go down. Anything less than $100/day is really exploitation in my opinion; do the math with the hourly rate. The work is hard, thankless, and sometimes backbreaking. PAs usually are on a flat rate, based on a 10-hour day (sometimes 12-hour day). As department heads on union projects, we are obligated to send a PA home after 10 hours, no matter if their work is done or not. This is done to avoid overtime and to avoid exploitation. It’s fair. However, on a non-union show, a PA can be there until the cows come home, and they receive no additional benefit for the extra hours.
Here’s the most beautiful part about union membership: we have health insurance benefits. As national health care is in flux, with reforms lobbied back and forth, we can rest assured that our health needs will be met, provided we bank enough hours to earn the coverage.
Yes – we “bank” hours. Right now in our union, we must work 400 hours in a qualifying period (6 months) in order to have health insurance. Local 705 members bank actual hours worked into their healthcare plan, and those of us on a flat rate bank a preordained amount of hours (60, as of now) per week. So, in order for me to have health insurance, I need to work a minimum of 7 weeks within a 6-month timeframe. If we work in excess of that amount, we “bank” the hours, holding on to them for a time when we may not have worked enough in a qualifying period. It’s pretty wonderful.
Non-union work – you’re on your own. Period. Even if you work over and over for the same company on different projects, they are not required to provide you with health insurance. I know of only one non-union company in Los Angeles that does – and they are a factory, hiring most of the same people over and over to do small-budgeted movies. They finally (recently) had their “come to Jesus” moment and gave everyone health coverage. But I have only heard of this ONE incident. I know way too many talented people who lack even basic health coverage because they cannot afford it on their small salary, and they continue to work on non-union projects. It’s not right.
I know this seems like a weird one, but something you should probably know – in this current climate of banks levying huge fees on customers for seemingly no reason, you have another option. It’s the First Entertainment Credit Union. If you work in entertainment, and have a few paycheck stubs to prove it, you can open an account with FECU, and it is fee-free. After 25 years, I gave my bank the boot and I am happy I did. You don’t have to be a union member to be a part of the credit union. You just have to prove that you work in entertainment by showing them a few recent pay stubs. I highly recommend making the switch.
Things That Are Illegal Anyway That You Should Know About
THINGS THEY CAN”T ASK YOU IN A JOB INTERVIEW – Just FYI, there are a few things that employers can NOT ask you in a job interview. 1) Your age; 2) Where/when you were born; 3) Your native language; 4) Your marital status; 5) How many/if you have kids; and 6) Anything that would indicate your religious preference. All of these questions are meant to be prejudicial outside of the scope of your ability to do your job. Simply explained – it’s none of their damned business. If any of these questions come up in a job interview, deflect and change the subject. If they persist, you can ask them why they feel that the question is relevant. Then you can shut them down by telling them that the question is prohibited by law (if you’re me) or you can politely decline to answer (if you’re you).
DRUG/ALCOHOL USE – This is a really tough issue. Many people in the entertainment business are party animals. I have worked on films where the crew was going out every night, partying ‘til the bars closed, swinging from the rafters, doing drugs, drinking, etc., only to get up and roll in to work at 6AM like nothing ever happened. Look, I’m from Chico. I appreciate a good party. But seriously? If I have hired you and you come in to work hung over, barfing, green at the gills, just pack your bags and go, forever. There are too many people who take this work seriously for me to be saddled with someone who doesn’t.
I am not alone in this feeling, either. Most other department heads I know would do the same thing – send you packing. My best advice to you would be to save your partying for the weekend. If you feel that you need to have a drink every night, confine it to one or two quiet bevs, and hit the hay – please! If you find that your desire to drink is stronger than that, please seek help. If you go out partying with the crew and break your arm, you can’t work the next day!! And trust me – NO ONE will have sympathy for your broken arm once they find out you were wasted when you broke it. Plus, you won’t be able to do your job. Please get help if you find yourself in this situation. You risk ruining your reputation, and that is a very hard thing to repair.
SEXUAL HARASSMENT – As a female in this business, I shudder when I think about the sexual harassment I have endured over the years. It is something that shamefully I (and many others) have “sucked up” and not reported because we didn’t want to make waves or leave a bad impression. With the benefit of a few years on me now (and a BS tolerance reduced to -.0001%), I say, “HORSE $H!T.” If someone is sexually harassing you – touching you inappropriately, provoking you with suggestive language, implying a job benefit because of perceived sexual favors – report it right away, even if it is the producer of the project or your immediate boss. It is NOT normal, it is NEVER okay, and you do NOT have to endure it. Even if it seems innocuous, you have the right to explain that it makes you uncomfortable and you have the right to demand that the perpetrator stop doing it.
If you feel scared about reporting it, I might suggest having some evidence. They make really small video cameras these days. You can ask to be wired and recorded by the sound department. You might have a camera phone. Get creative, and get evidence. That way you have something irrefutable and it doesn’t devolve into a he-said-she-said situation. I don’t know a single female in this industry who has not experienced sexual harassment on some level at some point in her career (and I am sure that some men have, too). It is NEVER okay, and I encourage you to get evidence and come forward. You might embolden others similarly harassed to take a stand themselves, and that would be meaningful for all of us.
Let me be clear – it has been many years since I’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace. If you know me personally, you’d be scared to even THINK about sexually harassing me because of my microscopic BS tolerance level at this point. I will cut you with my razor tongue and leave you bleeding, gasping for air like a stuck fish! But once upon a time, I was new to this business, and as such was vulnerable. I needed work, I needed good references, and I wanted to have allies. I was never harassed in a way that made me feel truly violated, but I was touched inappropriately, I was spoken to indecently – repeatedly – and I was asked out on dates by superiors (whom I had no interest in dating) with the implication that better work would follow if I went along with it. This is abuse. This is exploitation. And I tell you about it today so that perhaps you won’t have to endure it.
I am sure that many of you Frocktalk readers have cautionary tales of your own. You are welcome to share them in the comments section of this article. I know I have forgotten to mention some other really important things, so please pipe in with your two cents!
The bottom line of today’s lengthy essay is THANK GOD FOR UNIONS. We may complain about the politics and the ring-kissing and the cliques… but at the end of the day, the union is there to protect us from the exploitation that befalls many in our industry.
If you are working in a non-union environment, please know that many of us (older and way more cynical than you) have been there and made it through. If you are having a hard time on a non-union job, ask someone older in your profession for his/her advice or perspective. We need to be here for each other.
Happy Labor day, everyone. Enjoy your barbeques!