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 COVID-19 pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus will potentially prove to be an even greater safety threat to TV and film stand-ins than other cast and crew members when they return to work — if the industry’s perception and treatment of stand-ins does not fundamentally change.
This greater threat is because stand-ins are often perceived as “crew members,” without giving them the same treatment true crew members receive.
In other words, stand-ins are regarded as crew members in some cases, but not all cases, and this gap in regard for stand-ins as true “crew members” is meaningful and potentially problematic.
This gap in regard usually means stand-ins are forgotten during safety meetings and are not provided access to safety bulletins that other crew members get.
This gap also tends to mean stand-ins are often not privy to training and related meetings that other crew members attend.
Where stand-ins are classified as “background actors,” this further insulates stand-ins from safety information that the crew members with whom they directly work receive.
At that, background actors will sometimes receive more information about safety and workplace conditions than the stand-ins working that day.
Stand-ins need the same treatment either crew members or background actors receive, especially now. Without a clear regard by the employer of stand-ins as true “crew members,” stand-ins are at a loss for gaining critical information in advance about work. Thereby, stand-ins are at greater risk for exposure to COVID-19 than other cast, crew, or background actors working on the production.
If you want to skip reading, the lesson is simple: Provide all stand-ins with prelims and callsheets before their work day. This includes day-playing stand-ins. This is a real safety concern, now more than ever given COVID-19. And below are a number of reasons why.
These are some general observations from working as a stand-in in the New York City area over the past ten years.
Most Stand-Ins Do Not Receive Callsheets Before They Report to Work
Most stand-ins do not receive callsheet information directly via email in advance of their work day. This includes stand-ins who stand in every day for stars on television and film productions, as well as those who occasionally stand in on a production.
Stand-ins who job in for one day on a production likely never receive any callsheet information in advance of their job — unless they proactively seek it out from other stand-ins who might have obtained it, officially or unofficially (such as by pulling a prelim out of the garbage and taking a photo of it).
Inexplicably, Most Productions Don’t Give Stand-Ins Prelims & Callsheets
On some productions, giving preliminary or callsheet information is barred for unknown reasons, even when other crew members are given it.
On other jobs, giving preliminary or callsheet information to stand-ins is conditional upon request — in other words, unless a stand-in asks for a prelim or callsheet, a paperwork PA may not even think to ask a stand-in if he or she would want one.
On still other productions, callsheet information is kept so private that certain department heads only seem to receive it. Sharing such information with stand-ins tends to be verboten, for reasons unknown. In such cases, when stand-ins learn who gets callsheet information and who doesn’t, discriminatory treatment of stand-ins may become a less persuasive argument than when all other crew members receive this information but stand-ins are blocked.
Still, the question is one of safety for stand-ins if they are not provided insight into the next production day.
Most Stand-Ins Do Not Receive Safety Bulletins
When callsheets are emailed out at the end of a production day (and sometimes when prelims are emailed out in the middle of the production day), safety bulletins and information are included with the callsheets.
Background actors never receive this information, as they are never emailed callsheets and instead are informed in advance by background casting directors of work conditions (presumptively by contractual obligation — otherwise, background actors can refuse the work).
Stand-ins also never receive this information unless they are the rare few who are emailed prelims and callsheets.
Background Actors Are Often More Informed about Work Conditions than Stand-Ins
Background casting directors do not always inform stand-ins of work conditions the same as they inform background actors working on a day.
For example, background actors may be cleared for smoke work, wet work, or night work in advance of their work.
However, stand-ins are not always so informed, frequently booking a job simply with a text from a background casting director asking them if they are available to stand in on a job, with no other details about the production day. The ability to ask questions about the job may be prevented by the particular text platform the background casting director uses, which may also make figuring out whom to call to ask questions difficult to discern for the stand-in.
When these booked stand-ins call in or check in the night before a job, it may be announced that “Everyone has been cleared for smoke” — when evidently the stand-ins were never informed about smoke or otherwise “cleared” for smoke.
Background Casting Directors Have Incomplete Information about the Work Day
Furthermore, background casting directors do not always have complete information about a shoot day, which can have problematic consequences.
For example, background casting directors may have information that a shoot day is “all interiors.” However, while a shoot day may be all interiors, if those interior scenes are in a small house or small store, or inside a car, that tends to mean that the crew cannot hold inside that house, store, or car.
In other words, stand-ins would want to dress warmly if they were working exteriors, but they may not dress as warmly if they were told they were shooting interiors that truly required being outside during the shoot.
Typically, Intimacy Coordinators Do Not Work with Stand-Ins
Intimacy coordinators also typically do not work with stand-ins. Instead, intimacy coordinators tend to work only with on-camera actors — usually principal actors and occasionally background actors.
This means that stand-ins find themselves navigating uncomfortable scenes in close proximity with another stand-in whom they may not know when they are standing in for shots.
Coupled with their lack of advance information, these stand-ins may not have been informed that they would be standing in in, say, a sex scene, or in some other provocative or intimate scene.
In light of COVID-19, standing in in close proximity to another stand-in, especially if his or her current health is questionable, brings heightened need for advance information about the work stand-ins will be doing in a day — to give them the opportunity to refuse the work. It may also mean that the work of intimacy coordinators may almost become medical.
Some Examples from Past Experience of the Dangers of Not Giving Stand-Ins Advance Information about the Production Day
I think of a few classic examples within the last ten years that haunt me with respect to the dangers and injuries stand-ins faced when they were not properly informed in advance of the kind of work they would be doing.
Aside from any injuries, the lack of preparation these stand-ins could have made with proper advance information meant they were confronted with uncomfortable work situations — that if they had been able to prepare for those situations appropriately, they might not have suffered any unnecessary discomfort or stress on the production staff. Also, with advance information about the shoot day, these stand-ins might have been able to refuse the work.
Tick Dangers Unannounced to Stand-Ins or Background Actors
I have been on jobs (plural) where crew was informed in advance that they would be shooting in a park where ticks were present, so crew was instructed to wear pants rather than shorts that day. This information made it neither to background actors nor stand-ins directly.
Myself, I saw the prelim which gave notice about ticks, but I noticed that casting did not communicate that threat to the stand-ins or background actors working the next day.
Work in Woods and Sex-Scene Work Unannounced to Stand-Ins
I have been on a job where the production shot in the woods. The stand-ins were not informed, and one stand-in wore short shorts to work that warm day. For her scene, she was instructed to run through thicket. This caused her legs to be scratched by the tall natural brush.
Later, we stood in in a sex scene in the woods, lying on top of each other on muddy ground. While we were on a protective mat, we were not informed of the close work of a sexual nature, nor the dirty conditions in which we would be working.
Work Outside in Mud Unannounced to Stand-Ins
I was on a job wherein a day-playing stand-in presumed the production was in a soundstage. She showed up in new wedges (shoes), but her work was going to be in a muddy outdoor set.
She was not informed about those work conditions in advance. As a result, production had to get appropriate footwear for her to work.
Stand-Ins Not Informed of Exterior Work in Severe Cold and Snow, and That Interior Work Required Holding Outside
I was on a job wherein we were shooting interiors in a small cabin, which meant most crew members had to be outside in the snow and severe cold while we shot. Holding was too far away to stay there between takes.
A stand-in who was not informed about these work conditions reported to work with footwear that would not protect his feet from the very cold and snowy conditions for a 12+-hour workday. At nightfall, he was supposed to shoot along the icy water’s edge, when it was forecast also to snow.
He was not informed of these work conditions in advance and could not have prepared, especially if casting simply described his scenes as “interior” scenes.
The Liability to Productions When Stand-Ins Are Not Equally Informed (and Equally Treated) as Crew Members or Background Actors
These longstanding gaps in the perception and treatment of stand-ins create a liability for stand-ins when they work on a TV or film production.
Without advance information about their work days, stand-ins cannot adequately prepare for the work they will be doing, nor can they refuse the work they are being offered before showing up to work.
Stand-ins are thus put in a position of potential danger when they work — of showing up underprepared for the work conditions, or of putting themselves into situations threatening to their health or well-being. This is actually quite stressful at times — booking a stand-in job, and showing up to work not sure what to expect, when the cast surely knows what to expect, as does most of the crew members.
That liability stand-ins face is translated to the productions. The employers who hire stand-ins become liable for any problems their stand-ins face from lack of information, and the background casting directors who function as agents of the employers become liable when they do not properly inform stand-ins in advance of the nature of their work.
If stand-ins find themselves in harm’s way as a result of the gaps in communication about unsafe, dangerous, hazardous, or objectionable work conditions, productions may find themselves in trouble with SAG-AFTRA or the National Labor Relations Board. They may also be facing preventable workers’ compensation claims in the event of an injury or illness afflicting a stand-in on the job.
SAG-AFTRA Needs to Know (and Act Decisively and Strongly)
Insofar as SAG-AFTRA stand-ins working under the TV/Theatrical Agreement and other union collective bargaining agreements do not grieve to SAG-AFTRA about these gaps of advance information about their work conditions, SAG-AFTRA cannot seek remedy with the offending productions, file claims, or seek arbitration on yours and other stand-ins’ behalf.
So stand-ins are urged to report to SAG-AFTRA field reps, business reps, and SAG-AFTRA in general these failures to communicate advance information to stand-ins, in the hopes something can be done about the longstanding and now especially more dangerous issue.
However, most likely, stand-ins have reported to SAG-AFTRA about these kinds of gaps in information provided to stand-ins. And union action has been far from decisive or strong.
I, for one, have complained to at least one SAG-AFTRA field rep about a production not informing a day-playing stand-in about the dangerous wet and cold conditions in which he was going to work, which meant he showed up to work without appropriate outerwear and footwear.
I also complained to the boss of this field rep about the issue. To my horror, the field rep’s boss had not realized that stand-ins did not receive callsheet information.
That was in 2016. It is now 2020. Nothing has materially changed with respect to getting advance information to stand-ins. Stand-ins, including myself, still report to work uninformed about the production day ahead of them. They usually still do not receive callsheet information before reporting to work.
The Hulking If
If productions continue to keep callsheet and safety information only with their crew members and do not equally distribute that information to stand-ins, the dangers of stand-in work intra-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 become grossly more apparent.
Any inaction by SAG-AFTRA to ensure stand-ins receive that information is inconsistent with protecting its members, and that inaction puts stand-ins in apparent harm’s way — especially by way of not letting these stand-ins refuse the work before reporting to work.
For example, if the work scheduled for tomorrow is a sex scene in the woods, and if background casting directors do not tell stand-ins anything about the shoot day when they accept the work or get their calltimes, then they may report to work without advance notice that they will be within six feet of each other; potentially touching each other or lying on top of each other; in an outdoor environment that could be cold, hot, wet, snowy and/or muddy; and where ticks could be present.
Some stand-ins would refuse this work for any number of reasons, considering their individual health or other safety or ethical reasons. Of course, stand-ins might newly find themselves refusing the work for COVID-19 reasons.
And without that advance information from the background casting director, or the provision of a callsheet before reporting to work, the stand-ins simply report to work, and their only recourse at that point (per the TV/Theatrical Agreement) is to refuse to do the work and be reassigned if production is unwilling to dismiss them upon refusal.
The Contract Language That Does (But Also Doesn’t) Protect Stand-Ins
For purposes of the TV/Theatrical Agreement, stand-ins are fundamentally defined as “background actors.” This definition makes the effort to classify stand-ins as true “crew members” more frustrating, because it fights against stand-ins being truly seen as “crew members” and instead as some form of actor or talent. Given that some stand-ins are not actors themselves, seeing these stand-ins as actors is wholly counterintuitive.
Whatever the case, where you read “background actor” in the following contract language, you can read that as “stand-in” as well.
In the Los Angeles area, in the TV/Theatrical Agreement, Schedule X, Part I, Section 7, “Work of an Unusual or Hazardous Character,” governs what happens when a stand-in refuses dangerous or hazardous work.
In the New York area, Schedule X, Part II, Section 7, governs, and it appears to be the very same language as in Schedule X, Part I.
The Contract Language Punishes Productions … by Letting Them Reassign Stand-Ins to Do Different Work?!
Schedule X, Part I, Section 7, reads:
The Producer shall notify the background actor at the time of the call of the character of the work when background actors are required to do night work, “wet” work, work in airborne dust or debris created by Producer, work in smoke created by Producer or work of a rough or dangerous character. When a background actor is not so notified, he shall have the right to refuse such work and receive a half-check or compensation for actual time worked, whichever is greater. Failure to notify a background actor of the character of such work involved shall not, however, limit the Producer’s right to require that background actor to do other background actor work, in lieu thereof, if such other background actor work exists.
In short, if the production does not notify the stand-in of unusual or hazardous work, then the production may still keep the stand-in to do other work.
But if the stand-in would have refused the work because of the hazards to which he or she would subject himself, this stand-in is needlessly forced into work rather than given the opportunity to refuse it.
And the stand-in is not given the absolute and immediate option to go home because of the failure of the production to notify him or her about the hazard.
How is this language helpful for the stand-in in this awkward and threatening situation?
Imagine the stand-in who knows she never wants to subject herself to ticks for health reasons, who reports to work to suddenly find she is working in a state park where ticks are notably present. Without advance knowledge of the nature of the work, she can’t know that this is work that she would have refused. Without this advance information, she is potentially forced to stay on the job in the tick-ridden area at her own risk, denied of the ability to prevent that risk by refusing the job offer for the hazards it presents to her.
The Contract’s Non-Discrimination Clause — But Can It Be Enforced?!
Section 7 goes on to say:
A background actor will not be discriminated against for refusing to accept hazardous work.
This language is helpful. However, many stand-ins probably disbelieve that their refusal to do problematic work of which they were not informed would preempt some form of discrimination from the production company, the background casting director, or the background casting office in general.
In other words, while it’s nice to see the contract has explicit non-discrimination language for objecting to hazardous work, that doesn’t mean discrimination won’t happen or will be easy to prove if it does happen.
And if discrimination does happen against a stand-in for objecting to do work for which there was not appropriate advance information, the discrimination could have damaging economic consequences for the stand-in — a mere victim of the failure to be informed of work of an unusual or hazardous character rather than some form of troublemaker.
There’s a Committee for That — But Can You Force SAG-AFTRA to Refer Your Dispute to It?!
Section 7 concludes:
Any dispute under this Section 7 shall be referred to the Producer-Background Actors Cooperative Committee and its decision of such dispute shall be final and binding.
This language is also helpful. But if SAG-AFTRA will not agree to do such referral, or follow up with you after such referral has been made, you don’t know whether your dispute about being informed about unusual or hazardous work was seriously considered by SAG-AFTRA.
And apparently, if this committee has made a decision in the past that is similar to your dispute, then that decision presumably would have been”final and binding” over your dispute, so there would potentially be no hope for remedy of your dispute in such a case.
That said: Tell SAG-AFTRA that you were not informed of unusual or hazardous work, and that you should have had that advance information, and that you want your dispute referred to the Producer-Background Actors Cooperative Committee, and that you will follow up for a report once that has been accomplished.
The Contract Language Punishes Productions … by Letting Them Pay Stand-Ins Half Checks?!
The next section in Schedule X, Part I, is Section 8, “Wet, Snow, and Smoke Work; Exterior Work.” Again, New York’s complement Section 8 seems to bear the same language. Section 8 states in part, notably:
A background actor not notified at the time of booking that wet, snow or smoke work is involved may refuse to perform in wet, snow or smoke and will receive a half day’s pay, or payment for actual time worked, whichever is greater.
This shows that payment of an amount is guaranteed to you when you refuse certain work without the appropriate advance information about your shoot day.
But it’s only a half-day’s pay. What if you show up to find there is wet work, you were not informed of this wet work, object to this wet work, but the scene took merely two hours to shoot and the others were wrapped? By this language, it seems that those actors would be receiving a check for 8 hours, but you would be receiving a check for 4 hours — because production failed to tell you about wet work. In other words, production might fail you by not informing you, so it’s your fault and you have to pay for it with a half check.
Looking at it another way, production can potentially save money if they don’t inform background actors of their work conditions, or even coerce background actors into surprise work conditions because the paycheck for when they refuse to work is potentially half of what they expected when they accepted the work.
How is this contract language helpful for stand-ins? Shouldn’t advance information for stand-ins be requisite?
This Does Not Have to Be: Give All Stand-Ins, Including Day-Playing Stand-Ins, Prelims and Callsheets Unconditionally
Once productions start to unconditionally give all stand-ins, including day-playing stand-ins, prelims and callsheet information, productions reduce their liability.
When productions do this, they are ensuring that stand-ins are informed when they show up to work about certain conditions to which they will be exposed.
Also, they allow the stand-ins to make preparations for such conditions, or refuse the work because of the conditions.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the physical distancing recommended because of it, it becomes even more important for stand-ins to be able to make decisions about the work they do, especially when they work in very close proximity with other stand-ins and occasionally need to touch them. Because intimacy coordinators typically do not work with stand-ins, stand-ins are left hyper-exposed and “on their own” to the risks of close contact that many stand-in jobs require.
Words for the Wise
Remember: The seriousness of COVID-19 for a person may depend in part upon that person’s underlying health conditions, which the employer is generally not obligated to know. Whether a stand-in can absorb the risk of work amid the time during and after the coronavirus pandemic is not for the employer to decide, or the casting director to decide, but for the stand-in to decide.
If stand-ins are trying to distance themselves from others as a reasonable means for avoiding contagion, and if these stand-ins cannot make work choices based on a lack of advance information, then working in very close proximity to or touching other stand-ins (as might be required for a camera setup while standing in) may be a health risk for those stand-ins that they are not willing the accept.
Considering also the prediction that stand-in work may be harder to come by intra- and post-COVID-19, stand-ins may not want to cause a ruckus about the lack of advance information they are receiving. This may translate to stand-ins accepting work without proper notice about their work, and not rocking the boat when they find themselves in objectionable, precarious, unsafe, or dangerous situations for their health and safety on set.
In other words, if the stand-in is despairing of a loss of work, he or she may make economically risky choices. Those risks could be significantly minimized if productions made the provision of prelim and callsheet information to core and day-playing stand-ins de rigueur.
How are you planning to field stand-in work when you are offered your next job in light of the coronavirus pandemic? If you are a production, will you make it a policy to email all stand-ins, including day-playing stand-ins, preliminary and callsheet information and safety information in advance of the production day? Share your comments below!