Sidelined Movie Workers Worry About Losing Health Benefits During Coronavirus Crisis

Mar 19, 2020
Originally published on March 20, 2020 7:09 am

Before movie theaters went dark and Hollywood film and TV productions were shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon was shooting its new billion-dollar Lord of the Rings series in New Zealand. James Cameron was there working on four sequels to Avatar. In London, Disney was about to begin filming its new live-action version of The Little Mermaid. And Warner Brothers was in Europe shooting The Matrix 4 and The Batman.

The shutdown affects 300,000 workers, like Kymm Swank, who had been working in Los Angeles as a camera assistant on the ABC sitcom Schooled. She says production crew members are a unique workforce.

"We're not independent contractors, we're not traditional full-time workers," she explains. "Our jobs are relatively short-term. So traditional emergency leave benefits are things that we can't always qualify for."

Swank says she considers herself lucky because she has some savings. But she worries many won't able to work the 400 hours every six months needed to qualify for health care benefits.

"During a pandemic, the thought of potentially losing your health care because you can't work is terrifying," she says.

"The last thing you want in a health care crisis is fewer people with health care benefits," agrees Rebecca Rhine, the national executive director of the International Cinematographers Guild local 600, which includes camera operators, still photographers and publicists.

The guild is the largest Hollywood local. It's part of a larger union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which is trying to help 120,000 members now out of work. IATSE is lobbying for its members to be included in any federal and state emergency relief aid packages.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Each day, of course, we're also hearing of more and more industries that are coming to a complete standstill. In Hollywood, film and TV production has all shut down. And that is impacting more than 300,000 workers. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Before the shutdown, Amazon was shooting its new billion-dollar "Lord Of The Rings" series in New Zealand, and James Cameron was working on four sequels to "Avatar." Disney was about to begin filming its new live-action version of "The Little Mermaid." And Warner Brothers was shooting "The Matrix 4" and "The Batman."

But film and television production around the world has shut down. Until now, Kim Swank was working as a camera assistant on the ABC sitcom "Schooled." She says production crew members are a unique workforce.

KIM SWANK: We aren't independent contractors. We're not traditional kind of full-time workers. Our jobs are relatively short term, so traditional emergency leave benefits are things that we can't always qualify for.

DEL BARCO: Swank considers herself lucky because she has some savings. But she worries many won't be able to work the 400 hours every six months needed to qualify for health care benefits.

SWANK: During a pandemic, the thought of potentially losing your health care because you can't work is terrifying.

DEL BARCO: Rebecca Rhine is the national executive director of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, which includes camera operators, still photographers and publicists. It's part of a larger union known as IATSE. And they're trying to help 120,000 members now out of work.

REBECCA RHINE: The last thing you want in a health care crisis is fewer people with health care benefits.

DEL BARCO: Rhine says her union is lobbying for members to be included in any federal and state emergency relief aid packages. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.