SAG-AFTRA is the union with whom many stand-ins have membership. It is the product of the 2012 merger of two unions: the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).
SAG-AFTRA oversees the administration of its collective bargaining agreements. Notably for union stand-ins, it oversees the collective bargaining agreements that cover both dramatic television (primetime dramas and comedies, etc.) and non-dramatic television (variety shows, award shows, etc.). These collective bargaining agreements dictate not just the rates under which union stand-ins work, but they also dictate which fund the members’ wages pay into: The SAG Pension and Health Fund (SAG P&H) or the AFTRA Health and Retirement Fund (AFTRA H&R).
Up until very recently, when a stand-in worked on a television show, the job either paid into SAG P&H or AFTRA H&R. If a stand-in were working toward qualifying specifically for a SAG pension and/or SAG’s health insurance, and if the stand-in repeatedly took work that paid into AFTRA’s pension or health plan, the decision to take this work may have led to the stand-in not meeting the qualifications for a SAG pension credit or for SAG health insurance, leaving the stand-in without a SAG pension credit and/or the preferred level of SAG health insurance coverage. (The converse was basically true if the stand-in were interested in AFTRA work but decided to take SAG work.)
Framed another way, while a union stand-in may have worked regularly throughout the year on various television projects, and while that stand-in’s jobs may have paid considerably into both SAG P&H and AFTRA H&R, if the stand-in’s income was just under the qualifications for both SAG P&H and AFTRA H&R, the stand-in may have ended up with no benefits despite regular employment as a union stand-in. (New rules in 2014 allowed for combining SAG and AFTRA income for health benefits but not pension credits.)
This situation was known as “split earnings” — a stand-in’s earnings were split into two separate pension and health funds rather than going into a single pension and health fund. It was an especially painful bind when the union stand-in had to turn down long-term stand-in work merely because it paid into the wrong plan for the stand-in. The result could be tens of thousands of dollars in lost income merely because of the split earnings problem created by the two different union benefit plans.
I should know: I’ve had to turn down months’ long, five-day-a-week stand-in work, and the prospect of tens of thousands of dollars of stand-in income, merely because the job paid into the wrong plan for me. And I still wrestle with the split earnings problem today.
Merging the Health Plans Did Not Solve Split Earnings
SAG and AFTRA’s health and pension plans did not merge along with the unions in 2012. From 2012 until the end of 2016, the SAG Pension and Health Fund and the AFTRA Health and Retirement Fund were separate. At the start of 2017, the health portions of the plans — the SAG-Producers Health Fund and the AFTRA Health Fund — began offering health benefits as a newly merged entity: the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan.
The announcement of the health funds’ merger was made on June 6, 2016, by SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris on the SAG-AFTRA website. She proclaimed that the merger of the two health plans will “once and for all, end the problem of split earnings.”
However, Carteris’s proclamation was disingenuous. The merger of the health plans did not include a merger of the SAG-Producers Pension Plan and the AFTRA Retirement Fund. So, split earnings continued (and continue) to be an issue for union stand-ins who were interested in their pensions. Stand-ins interested in their SAG pension may have to turn down tens of thousands of dollars in long-term stand-in work on a television series — or even short-term stand-in work — merely because it pays into AFTRA’s pension plan — and vice versa.
In short, the problem of split earnings has not ended “once and for all.” This is because the SAG and AFTRA pension plans have not merged.
Will the Pension Plans Ever Merge?
The SAG-AFTRA merger happened in 2012, and it is now 2017.
The SAG and AFTRA health plans finally merged nearly five years after the unions’ merger. No doubt there were logistics to work out, but, facially, most would agree that the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan largely resembles the SAG Health Plan preceding it, causing one to wonder just how difficult the health plans’ merger was to implement. Did it take nearly five years of steady work on the merger, or some shorter duration of time? Was there a time when the health plan merger wasn’t being worked on?
In truth, large corporations merge in shorter time periods than it has taken the SAG-Producers Pension Plan and the AFTRA Retirement Fund to merge. One has to wonder whether there is genuine motivation to merge these pension plans given that almost five years have passed without their merger, and little to no public information is available about plans for such a merger.
In fact, one has to really wonder whether there is genuine motivation to merge the pension plans at all if the SAG-AFTRA president believes that the problem of split earnings has ended with the mere merging of the health plans. If it seems to President Carteris that the problem of split earnings is solved, does that mean in her eyes there is no issue with its two pension plans not being merged?
SAG Predicted a Pension Plan Merger When Championing a Merger with AFTRA
Around when SAG and AFTRA put its merger up for the vote that eventually led to its approval, SAG released a page of “mythbusters” about the merger. One notable myth and SAG’s response implied the interest in a pension plan merger:
Note the use of the terms “eventual” and “quickly.” SAG’s position at the time is that a merger of the benefit plans under a SAG-AFTRA merger is seen by them as “eventual.” At that, combined SAG and AFTRA earnings in order to qualify for benefits could “quickly” take effect after a SAG-AFTRA merger is approved.
A merger of the SAG and AFTRA pension plans still has not happened some five years after the unions’ merger, which makes one wonder about its “eventuality.” And it took until July 1, 2014, for combined earnings to become a reality — for just the health plans. Combined earnings never became a reality for the pension plans and still hasn’t become a reality. This is to say that almost five years out, the split earnings problem still exists for union stand-ins.
It would seem that as of this 2017 post, the “merger myth” SAG reported on is more factual than SAG’s “merger fact.” When the SAG and AFTRA merger was up for vote, SAG put out information that was dubiously factual and that essentially manipulated merger voters into thinking that the split earnings problem would be swiftly remedied with combined earnings and an eventual merger of the benefit plans. Merging the unions did not lead to the eventual (as yet) merger of the pension plans, and the trustees have failed to quickly provide a method for combining earnings to qualify for pension credits.
Putting these facts together, when a stand-in opts to continue to be patient with the union with respect to its claims about “an end of split earnings” and the “eventual” merger of its pension plans, that stand-in is extending the pain of split earnings. A less patient, more aggressive pursuit of pension plan “merger facts” may be warranted.
What to Do as a Union Stand-In
If you are a stand-in who cares where your income goes, before accepting a union stand-in job, carefully research the show sheets on the SAG-AFTRA website (login and membership required) to see what “H&R” a project you are up for pays into.
Given that stand-in work can be booked suddenly and start the next day, it helps to skim the show sheets in order to keep abreast of what projects are currently shooting and to know what pension plan they pay into. By being informed, when you get a sudden message from casting asking you if you’re available to stand in, you’ll know whether you can comfortably say yes or had better say no.
As of January 1, 2017, all projects listed as either SAG or AFTRA next to “H&R” on the show sheet pay into the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan. However, only SAG projects pay into your SAG pension, and only AFTRA projects pay into your AFTRA pension. There is still the split earnings problem with respect to SAG and AFTRA pensions.
This advice may be helpful for you:
- If you are only interested in SAG work, you may want to stay away from booking stand-in work on jobs listed as “AFTRA” next to “H&R” for the show on the show sheet.
- Alternately, if you are only interested in AFTRA work, you may want to stay away from booking stand-in work on jobs listed as “SAG” next to “H&R” for the show on the show sheet.
Casting directors don’t always have accurate information about whether a job pays into SAG or AFTRA — especially if the project is new — so don’t put your faith in casting directors to have the correct information. The most reliable resource is SAG-AFTRA, so a call to the union will probably give you the most solid information about whether a project is SAG or AFTRA. While the show sheet on the union’s website is also very helpful, sometimes it is not up to date with projects that are just about to start production or have recently begun.
Also, knowing where you are with your earnings will help you figure out whether you’ve qualified for a pension credit already and need not care as much about whether your earnings are split. If you are seeking a SAG pension credit, and if you’ve already qualified for one for the year, taking an AFTRA stand-in job may not bother you. However, if you are interested in boosting your SAG earnings, taking AFTRA stand-in jobs works against that objective.
To figure out your earnings, you can log onto the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan or SAG-Producers Pension Plan websites. You can also call them for information on your earnings, as well as call the AFTRA Retirement Fund. Keep in mind that it takes some time for your earnings to be reported, so weeks or months of recent income may not yet be listed.
Write SAG-AFTRA and Its Pension Plan Trustees
If you are upset that the SAG-AFTRA pension plans have not merged nearly five years after the unions’ merger, write to the union and/or the pension plans. The SAG-Producers Pension Plan has a board of trustees, of which eighteen represent SAG-AFTRA. The AFTRA Retirement Fund has a board of trustees, too, ten of whom represent SAG-AFTRA, and all of whom may be emailed to their attention via an online contact form. Of note, both plans share one SAG-AFTRA trustee on their boards — SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator David P. White.
Explain that your work as a stand-in is negatively affected by two different pension plans and collective bargaining agreements that effectively split your stand-in earnings. Also explain any anecdotal evidence from your work or career as a stand-in wherein you lost significant income because a project you were up for did not pay into the pension plan you were focused on. Furthermore, underscore the amount of time that has passed since the merger and any evidence you have (such as quoted above) about an eventual pension plan merger and quickened progress toward combining earnings for pension credits. Seek information on the progress toward a merger, if any, and do not settle for vagueness or unsubstantiated claims about progress toward a merger. If possible, ask to speak in person with someone knowledgable about discussions on a possible merger of the SAG and AFTRA pension plans.
There are others who are not stand-ins but who are SAG-AFTRA members who are negatively affected by split earnings, especially when they turn down work that does not pay into their preferred plan. Some will have incorrect information about the pension plans, so do your own research as you try to understand the SAG-AFTRA pension plans and the nature of split earnings. At that, if there is incorrect information in this post, kindly add a comment below to point out the incorrect information and include the corrected information.
How much longer will union stand-ins have to wait for a merged pension plan and the true end of split earnings?
Have any thoughts about union stand-in work and the split earnings problem? Post your thoughts below!