This post is part of Stand-In Central’s deep-dive series into the coronavirus pandemic as it relates to stand-in work in TV and film. For more posts in the long-running series, visit https://standincentral.com/coronavirus.
— The Editor
The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has very quickly ground television and film production to a halt. Where I am in New York City, I had one stand-in job put me on notice, only to cancel me, then bring me back at the last minute. Last Friday, I had one cancel on me for this week, and as of this writing, there now seems to be no more productions shooting this week in New York City that usually hire stand-ins.
It is presumptively very early in the evolution of this novel coronavirus story and its unprecedented impact on television and film production — not just in New York City, but also in the United States and the world over. No doubt, productions and unions are taking the threat to work and workers seriously on their own without a specific governmental mandate.
The questions for now are what is to come for workers in television and film. Stand-In Central covers the angle of stand-ins in TV and film, while sometimes covering stand-ins in other areas of the industry like commercials and photo shoots, as well as covering the jobs of background actors and photo doubles.
So in this post, I will react from the perspective of a stand-in — namely a unionized, SAG-AFTRA stand-in working in New York City. I will also publish some early predictions of importance to stand-ins, in order to see how those predictions bear out in this apparent disaster within the entertainment industry.
It seems for now, the industry is in a state of shock and awe from the loss of work. While the coronavirus threat has existed since 2019, and while it has slowly crept toward the United States, the dropoff of work for stand-ins was rather sudden.
At this time of year, many television productions with large episode counts are usually shooting their final episodes. According to this article on Deadline, some of these productions are ending their seasons now with what they have shot so far, rather than anticipating a return to shoot the remaining episodes they planned to shoot.
For stand-ins on these jobs, they are not simply suddenly out of work, but the prospects of guaranteed paychecks when productions resume are dashed because in theory these productions are not resuming. Certainly, for some productions there may be a next season, but next season may begin at some further time from now rather than immediately upon the quieting of the pandemic.
Also at this time of year, a number of pilots go into production. Some stand-ins may have landed a coveted job as a regular stand-in on a pilot, a job that may lead to the potential of many seasons of work if the pilot is picked up. With pilot productions put on hold, it is unclear what might happen to these stand-ins. This article in The Hollywood Reporter suggests some pilots may simply go straight into production of a season rather than make their pickup conditional on the testing of the pilot. Whatever ends up being the case, there is probably little security to the stand-in who has landed a pilot, not knowing what stand-in work lies ahead.
With the shutdown of productions, stand-ins — not to mention background actors and photo doubles — are out of work. Given the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, as of this writing, the CDC is advocating social distancing and the reduction of mass gathering size — reportedly, to no more than 50 people in a gathering, to as few as 10 people in a gathering of vulnerable people. As of today, governor Andrew Cuomo of New York issued a mandatory density reduction of the workforce for non-essential businesses by 50%. This would apply presumptively to all businesses (i.e., television and film productions that employ stand-ins) for the immediate future and potentially for some time.
On a normal production day, a television or film production employs many more people than 10, and quite often employs more people than 50. This would mean that productions, by their nature, are groups of people who are contraindicated from congregating to do their work at this time. If a production does want to go into production during this time or earlier than advised, it probably would want or need to keep its crew lightweight and minimal.
SAG-AFTRA has provided its evolving and fluid angles on COVID-19. Reportedly, SAG-AFTRA has issued a number of emails to its full members related to COVID-19. However, its financial core workers who fund SAG-AFTRA’s core activities do not receive such communications from SAG-AFTRA. So, there is an information gap between SAG-AFTRA’s full members and financial core regarding COVID-19 and the union’s positions and advice. Essentially, where the union has COVID-19 advice for its full members (such as writing to legislators for assistance), its financial core workers do not receive that advice, so they cannot assist SAG-AFTRA’s interests by virtue of not being so advised.
Also, SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations with the AMPTP over a successor agreement to the TV/Theatrical Agreement are forecast to begin later this spring, plausibly in June. This is the contract under which most stand-ins work in television and film. No doubt COVID-19 will be on SAG-AFTRA members’ minds during those negotiations, and it is even a question whether negotiations will go on as planned.
But SAG-AFTRA approved its bargaining package for 2020 extraordinarily early on July 20th, 2019, long before the start of the COVID-19 story. It would seem that issues related to COVID-19 and future pandemics should be a consideration during negotiations for this 2020 contract (which expires on June 30, 2020), but given that the SAG-AFTRA National Board approved its bargaining package so long ago, it is unclear whether SAG-AFTRA will do anything to add to it for its workers’ sakes in light of COVID-19, stand-ins included.
One thing is made more resounding about SAG-AFTRA’s negotiation mindset is what it waived for its workers in the 2017 negotiations. In 2017, SAG-AFTRA waived sick time laws in multiple jurisdictions, including New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Oakland, Chicago, Berkeley, and other places. This is what the passage says in the 2017 memorandum of agreement (apologies for any typos in pasting from the source):
The Union expressly waives, to the full extent permitted by law, the application of the following to all pexformers employed under this Agreement: the New York City Earned Sick Time Act of 2013-; Section 1-24-045 of the Municipal Code of Chicago: the Cook County Earned Sick Leave Ordinance (Ordinance No. 16-4229); the San Francisco Paid Sick Leave Ordinance (San Francisco Administrative Code Section 12W);: the Paid Sick Leave Ordinance of Berkeley, California (Municipal Code Chapter 13.100); all requirements pertaining to ‘paid sick leave’ in Chapter 37 of Title 5 of the Municipal Code of Emeryyille, California (including, but not limited to, Chapter 37.0.l.e), 37.03, 37.07.a)l)B.ii. and 37.07.0); the Oakland Sick Leave Law (Municipal Code Section 5.92.030.); Chapter 4.62.025 of the Santa Monica Municipal Code (enacted by Ordinance No. 2509); the Seattle Paid Sick and Safe Time Ordinance (Ordinance No. 123698); Chapter 18.10 of Title 18 of the Municipal Code of the City of Tacoma. Washington (enacted by Ordinance No. 28275); Article 8.1 of Title 23, Chapter 2 of the Arizona Revised Statutes; Chapter 160 of the Ordinances of the Township of Bloomfield, New Jersey (enacted by Ordinance No. 15-10): the Paid Sick Time for Private Employees Ordinance of East Orange, New Jersey (Ordinance No. 21-2014; East Orange Code Chapter 140, Section l et seq.): the Paid Sick Time Law of Jersey City, New Jersey (Chapter 4 of the Jersey City Municipal Code); Chapter 8.56 of the Revised General Ordinances of the City of New Brunswick, New Jersey: Chapter 8. Article 5 of the Municipal Code of the City of Plainfield, New Jersey; the Sick Leave for Private Employees Ordinances of Elizabeth, New Jersey (Ordinance No. 4617): Irvington, New Jersey (Ordinance No. MC-3513); Montclair. New Jersey; Morristown, New Jersey (Ordinance No. 0-35-2016); Newark, New Jersey (City Ordinance 13-2010); Passaic, New Jersey (Ordinance No. 1998-14); Paterson. New Jersey (Pater on Code Chapter 412) and Trenton. New Jersey (Ordinance No. 14-45): and any other ordinance, statute or law requiring paid sick leave that is hereafter enacted. It is understood that in the event any other paid sick leave laws are enacted during the term of this Agreement which permit the parties to a collective bargaining agreement to waive application of such laws, the Union and the AMPTP shall memorialize any such waiver for any newly-enacted law by letter agreement.
Given the spread of COVID-19 and any loss of work that may immediately come of it because a SAG-AFTRA worker is infected by the virus, the union gave the limited protection of those laws away. The State of California would appear to be the only exception (SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP agreed to abide by California’s Sick Leave Law), but that exception may be because California makes its Sick Leave Law mandatory.
This waiver is particularly problematic given a bill under immediate consideration in New York State and explained in short here that provides financial assistance to employees affected by COVID-19 working for employers in New York State, but contains at present a passage (paragraph 14) that will prevent this bill (if it becomes law) from infringing upon any collective bargaining agreement. In other words, the SAG-AFTRA TV/Theatrical Agreement, and notably its waiver of many sick time laws, would potentially still be in force to prevent stand-ins and background actors from seeking the presumptive law’s remedies. Granted, the TV/Theatrical Agreement appears to only waive New York City’s earned sick time law and not any New York State law under consideration. That said, the bill first has to pass, then be enforced, and any attempt for a stand-in to enforce it through an employer in New York may be a valid test of both the presumptive law and the collective bargaining agreement and SAG-AFTRA’s implied intent to waive paid sick leave rights for members working under its collectively bargaining agreement. If the TV/Theatrical Agreement expires on June 30th, 2020, then at what point its waiver of paid sick leave laws would no longer be binding, and at what point a stand-in or background actor might become eligible for remedy under such laws, is much too far into the future to be seen.
That said, SAG-AFTRA seems to have helped to set up or at least promote some economic and financial relief by way of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation and Motion Picture Players Welfare Fund and with the administrative assistance of The Actors Fund. While it is not entirely certain as of this post, it seems that SAG-AFTRA full members may be eligible for such relief but its financial core members may not. (I say this because The Actors Fund may have non-SAG-AFTRA and non-SAG-AFTRA Foundation financial help available for financial core stand-ins and other related workers.)
All in all, it is interesting during a time when all workers in a bargaining unit are affected by this pandemic and may interact with one another at work, that a union such as SAG-AFTRA, which presumptively also upholds non-discrimination policies, would discriminate against members of its bargaining unit who are financial core. This is not to say that SAG-AFTRA needs to do anything toward these financial core workers or that it cannot in some way lawfully discriminate against them in some ways; this is to say that the optics are not good to be so discriminatory, especially for a labor organization that represents a number of workers (namely on-screen performers) for whom optics are critically important.
Insofar as workers dependent on the film and television industry for income are able to pay their bills, and insofar as changes in the advice to people in the United States remain shocking and awe-inspiring, workers will continue to be rendered a bit numb. But once realities like the need to pay bills, the need to pay for food, and the need to care for oneself during this crisis — especially in the face of predicted hospital overruns — that shock and awe may transform into anxiety, panic, and desperation.
It is currently mid-March 2020, and the awakening from shock and awe may start to occur at the end of March as the need to pay for rent spikes — especially among those who do not have the entertainment-industry income to do so, among those who live paycheck-to-paycheck, and among those who do not have robust-enough savings from which to tap. April 2020 will see a greater intensification of that desperation, as bills might be auto-paid but drain financial resources for the following month’s rent, April’s food, and other needs that orders to shelter in place may intensify.
If the entertainment industry cannot accommodate the intensified needs of its workers with a corresponding amount of appropriate (and safe) work, the worker desperation may further intensify rather than settle after productions start to resume work.
I predict that when productions do resume, this will be when the spread of COVID-19 has slowed but not stopped. Productions will return with smaller crews if possible, until the pandemic recedes or becomes more managed.
This predicted reduction in production population naturally means that orders for background actors will be reduced if not altogether canceled, in order to shoot scenes that require only principal actors.
This may also mean that orders for stand-ins will likely be reduced, and stand-ins who are hired will find themselves doing more utility stand-in work so that productions can keep the population of crew low. (A utility stand-in is someone who stands in for multiple actors rather than just a single actor.) In the immediate era to come, utility stand-ins may end up standing in for more people, and for people for whom they would not usually stand in, such as for someone of a different gender, a much different height, etc.
If productions are reducing their stand-in and background orders, this means the jobs will be fewer and harder by which to come. With all of the stand-ins and background actors out of work currently, the need to work will only intensify, such that when production resumes, stand-ins and background actors will more desperately seek the available jobs and slam casting directors with requests for work, both within the casting channels like Casting Networks but also outside those networks like via text messages. (Note that casting directors are also out of work during this period, so background actors and stand-ins may be preaching to the choir about the desperate need for employment.)
Depending on how productions dole out their work, and depending on how SAG-AFTRA enforces any collective bargaining agreement language that necessitates the rotation of work among background actors, it is plausible that casting offices (by way of productions) will put more measures in place to limit when background actors last worked on a production. Even before the outbreak, casting offices sometimes disallowed background actors from working on certain productions if they, say, worked on the production at some time in the last four weeks. When productions return, background actors may experience more limits like these — but as a relatively humanitarian gesture to help give employment to more unemployed background actors.
The effect may be that many background actors may be so lucky to get back to work but not have the ability to book as frequently on certain jobs that tended to hire them regularly. It is hard to say, but it is possible that core background actors on certain jobs may find their slots replaced with other background actors, at least temporarily, as jobs are spread to more people rather than kept to an isolated core set of people. Of course, core background counts may be reduced, meaning fewer core background actors may be on a regular job than before the outbreak. By extension, stand-ins may experience similar effects as their regular stand-in work is doled out to other stand-ins who were unemployed.
Of course, because the future is unknown, there are questions. Here are some that come to mind with respect to stand-ins and work in television and film.
- When productions do start to come back, what will happen if someone then becomes infected with COVID-19, or possible COVID-19? Will production go dark again? How much does the threat of COVID-19 have to be eliminated before a production can progress?
- To what extent can productions lawfully condition hiring on medical examinations, COVID-19 exposure, and the like? When does any production or casting director question about your health become unlawful? What will the EEOC enforce when productions resume?
- How will the work of intimacy coordinators change when returning to work on television and film productions? Will intimacy coordinators limit their work to just principal actors, or will they also provide guidance to stand-ins who are involved in intimate scenework and its setup?
- If you are infected with COVID-19, or suspect you are infected with COVID-19, should you show up to work in order to guarantee a paycheck? What economic assurance is assured to prevent you from going to work when you are infected, if there are not sick time laws governing your employment? (Currently, to the extent reasonable, it may be more rational for a stand-in to report to work sick then be sent home in order to collect the paycheck than to call out of work and not receive a paycheck for the day.)
- How will this pandemic affect SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP’s negotiations for the 2020 TV/Theatrical Agreement? Will the contract simply expire if the pandemic proceeds? Given that SAG-AFTRA members tend to vote yes for each contract the union presents to them, how many SAG-AFTRA members will vote no if the union does not bargain for pandemic-related considerations? How much leverage does the AMPTP have over SAG-AFTRA, given that SAG-AFTRA members are out of work and potentially unlikely to approve a strike authorization?
- Will the WGA strike, and in effect delay production further, even if the pandemic resolves within a month or so?
- What economic relief awaits stand-ins and background actors in the future?
- Will photo doubles find themselves with more work after production resumes? Will wardrobe departments be more careful in laundering clothing worn by both principal actors and photo doubles?
- Will work be considered “hazardous” or “dangerous” if it is with a person suspected of having COVID-19, and will appropriate compensation for hazardous/dangerous work of that kind be enforced by SAG-AFTRA?
There are more questions definitely to be asked, but these are early ones.
What reactions, predictions, and questions do you have about COVID-19’s effect on TV and film production? Do you have a perspective as a stand-in? Share your thoughts in the comments below!