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
Presuming that health and safety are top concerns upon the return of production work, it is not unreasonable to assume that stand-in work will be threatened.
Arguably, productions will want to keep the amount of workers as low as possible, not only to keep the crew safe, but also to keep their main actors safe. A sick actor with COVID-19 could slow production to a halt for two or more weeks — presuming that the disease does not kill him or her.
With those very real and dire health considerations, stand-ins may have a mark on their back. Stand-ins in TV and film stand and sit in the places where there respective first-team actors stand and sit. Being in the same area where an actor is before that actor steps in may mean that if the stand-in is sick, that actor could end up sick. And that may be a risk that productions are unwilling to take.
Now, as we’ve mentioned before, it might be okay to hire the appropriate, collectively bargained amount of stand-ins and not bring them to set. That is, pay for stand-ins but don’t use the stand-ins. That might solve any contractual issues in having stand-ins, while also helping to protect all workers. (There is still the issue of where those stand-ins will hold, plus the risk of even bringing them to work if they’re not going to be used.)
What seems like more of the issue, which is the subject of this post, is not hiring stand-ins, and then having other people do the work stand-ins do. There is the further issue of what SAG-AFTRA will do about that. Which leads into “The Teamsters Question.”
So let’s discuss.
When a worker does the unionized work of another worker, that action is usually called a “violation.”
For example, say that two workers, Joe and Frank, work at the same employer called Crazy Buckets. Joe is in a union, while Frank is not in that union.
Let’s stay that at Crazy Buckets, buckets have to be transported. Years ago, Joe’s union was able to unionize “bucket transporting,” so only people in Joe’s union can transport buckets at Crazy Buckets.
Now let’s say one day Frank is on the job at Crazy Buckets and decides he’s going to transport a bucket instead of Joe. Or say that Crazy Buckets decided to ask Frank to transport a bucket instead of Joe. This is work that is in Joe’s union’s jurisdiction. Since Frank is not in Joe’s union, and since bucket transporting is unionized at Crazy Buckets, it’s wrong for Frank to transport a bucket at this employer. Frank and/or Crazy Buckets has committed a “violation.”
An employer might try to get away with a violation because in doing so, it might save money. For example, an employer might try to have non-union workers do the work union workers do. Doing so usually would mean a cost savings to the employer, given that union employees often are paid higher than non-union workers (but not always). Non-union workers also have fewer protections in many cases, making them easier to hire, work with, and fire.
Violations can have real consequences for employers if unions pursue them. Namely, unions can enforce economic penalties (i.e., fines) or some other painful outcome upon employers in the face of a violation.
Then again, violations can also go unreported, unenforced, or result in just a slap on the wrist.
Based on what stand-ins have seen on set, there are some very real potentials for violations of SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction when it comes to stand-in work in the return to production mid- or post-pandemic. Stand-ins commonly see different sorts of workers attempt to do the work of stand-ins — sometimes reasonably so, something unreasonably so.
Here are some plausible permutations to anticipate.
ADs are generally seen as the direct bosses of stand-ins. The 2nd 2nd AD on many sets will take some form of immediate responsibility over them. If stand-ins are suddenly needed on set, and if a stand-in cannot be located, a 2nd 2nd AD might be found standing on the stand-in’s mark until that stand-in is located.
It is not unheard-of to see the 1st AD do the same thing: stand on a stand-in’s mark when the stand-in is nowhere to be found, even if for but a minute.
ADs are definitely bosses over PAs. PAs are not unionized, and it seems almost as if there is no limit to what can be asked of them.
Many PAs comply with the demands made of them by productions. That said, in the return to work, PAs could be asked to do some stand-in work, not only taking advantage of PAs but also violating SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction in the process.
There is some precedent to having PAs work as stand-ins. For one, soap operas historically have used PAs as stand-ins, and non-union productions reportedly at times use PAs as stand-ins.
At that, many stand-ins have been on set when production was at a loss for stand-ins and improperly threw in a PA to help with the lighting or rehearsal of a scene (which puts unionized stand-ins in a bit of an awkward situation in light of the obvious violation).
Camera assistants (ACs) may also end up doing some stand-in work.
From time to time, stand-ins will see an AC doing some light stand-in work. This usually happens when the camera crew quickly needs to see someone on the mark and a stand-in is either not there or not even bothered with.
It is not very common to see an AC jump to do stand-in work, but if a camera operator (who functions as a type of boss over the AC) asks the AC to jump on a mark, that AC probably would not object to the request — even though arguably that’s a violation of SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction.
While it may seem funny, dolls, stuffed animals, mannequins, and even “stand-in babies” are real threats to SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction if they’re used to drop the stand-in count and replace a stand-in.
To date, dolls are rarely used as stand-ins. One usually sees dolls only when the principal actor or background actor is an infant; a doll is swapped out for the infant during camera setups given their delicate nature and the usual need for them to sleep when they are not working.
While we’ve never heard of SAG-AFTRA finding that to be a violation of its jurisdiction, it would seem, though, that if the infant is working under at union contract, it would be a violation of SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction to have someone or something other than a stand-in do that’s infant’s stand-in work.
I am not making a case that more infants should be hired to do stand-in work, but I am pointing up how it appears to be violative to have someone other than a union stand-in do the infant’s stand-in work.
What to Do about Violations
Typically, if you are standing in and you see a violation, you report it. It might depend a bit on the particular instance to dictate whom the best person is to contact with respect to a violation. If an AC is doing stand-in work, it might be appropriate to talk to an AD. But if a PA or AD is doing stand-in work, understandably, it might be awkward to tell the AD about that.
This is usually where SAG-AFTRA field reps come in. If you are lucky to see a SAG-AFTRA rep on set, you can report the violation to the SAG-AFTRA field rep, and that rep can investigate the violation.
While it’s hard to say what a field rep would do if not actually witnessing the violation him- or herself, a general guess is that production would be put on some kind of notice about the violation. If egregious enough, the production might be fined for having people other than stand-ins do stand-in work. But honestly, that is a bit hard to imagine SAG-AFTRA doing in the face of violations of a stand-in kind.
Part of that comes from experience. I recall watching a Key PA doing stand-in work while a SAG-AFTRA field rep was talking to a SAG-AFTRA member. The violation was so egregious that I interrupted the conversation the field rep was having to point out the violation. And sure enough, the moment the field rep walked over, there was nothing for him to see. So while the violation happened, I doubt anything was done about the violation because the SAG-AFTRA field rep didn’t witness it. And even if he did witness it, I don’t know what real redress there could have been for the violation.
But there is something interesting about SAG-AFTRA field reps that has a bearing on both violations of stand-in jurisdiction and their appearance on union sets amid or after the COVID-19 pandemic. SAG-AFTRA field reps are unionized themselves. They are Teamsters. And that invites what I’d like to dub “The Teamsters Question” when it comes to reporting violations of SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction.
“The Teamsters Question”
For example, SAG-AFTRA field reps in New York are members of a bargaining unit represented by the Teamsters Local 210. This means that the Teamsters negotiate with SAG-AFTRA (the employer) on the terms and work conditions for SAG-AFTRA field reps.
SAG-AFTRA field reps are incredible potential vectors for disease. A SAG-AFTRA field rep in a given day may visit several sets. The rep might visit that set because of the large amount of background actors hired that day, or because of stunts or children working that day, or for some other reason. Their job seems to require making their presence known to the SAG-AFTRA workers that day in case there are any problems. The SAG-AFTRA field rep also liaises with production personnel to address any grievances or to basically “check in.”
SAG-AFTRA field reps perform an important job in the administration of SAG-AFTRA contracts. But in visiting several sets a day, and interacting with a number of different SAG-AFTRA workers on different sets (sometimes quite a distance from each other geographically), SAG-AFTRA field reps become potential vectors for transmission of novel coronavirus.
For instance, a SAG-AFTRA field rep might visit a set in the morning where there are several SAG-AFTRA actors. There might be no particular issue, but say that someone on that set, as yet asymptomatic, is infected with the novel coronavirus and interacts with that SAG-AFTRA field rep.
Then say that SAG-AFTRA field rep visits two more sets that day. That could potentially mean that unbeknownst to the field rep, the field rep has transferred a contagious virus that might otherwise be contained on one set to various other sets in a wide area.
Knowing this potential, it would not be unreasonable to think that Teamsters Local 210 is keen to this potential issue and is working with the employer SAG-AFTRA on what a return to work will look like for SAG-AFTRA field reps. It is purely speculative at this point, but if the pandemic means less interaction, it might mean that SAG-AFTRA field reps visit fewer sets — in order to protect themselves and their families, but also to avoid viral transmission from one production to another, and to SAG-AFTRA members, other actors, and crew alike.
What might this mean for stand-ins in the face of violations of SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction? It might mean that productions try to get away with not using stand-ins for safety reasons, getting other more necessary crew members to do stand-in work, and not having SAG-AFTRA field reps available to whom to report those violations or protect SAG-AFTRA stand-in jurisdiction.
What Would SAG-AFTRA Say about This?
This potentiality puts SAG-AFTRA in an interesting and plausible conflict of interest.
SAG-AFTRA wants to protect its members. To do that in New York, it needs the work of Teamsters in Local 210 to visit sets to ensure SAG-AFTRA contract terms are administered and enforced.
But if the Teamsters in Local 210 push back on their own health and safety, translating to fewer set visits, that would potentially mean less protection for SAG-AFTRA members when they are working.
So, should SAG-AFTRA (as an employer) get upset with the SAG-AFTRA field reps for not doing as many set visits? Does pushing more set visits by the field reps mean that it is potentially supporting a vector of virus transmission among sets and among SAG-AFTRA members?
These are only questions, currently without answers. But they are questions that should be asked.
And when you show up to your next stand-in job and someone who is not a stand-in is standing on your mark, you’re going to be wondering what there is to do about it.
What You Get for Reporting Violations
Admittedly, there’s not much reward you get as a stand-in when you witness or are the victim of a violation.
When a production violates SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction and puts someone else on a mark to do stand-in work, you might lose out on stand-in work and the respective stand-in paycheck. That is reasonable to assume. If production could have hired you as a stand-in, but doesn’t, and instead has someone who is not a stand-in on the job, you are losing on on a stand-in paycheck for that day.
But if you report the violation, and if the union pursues it as a violation, nothing in the TV/Theatrical Agreement says that you get paid for that violation.
Instead, any economic damage for a violation goes into SAG-AFTRA’s pockets. This makes some sense, but it does not make sense when you are the one who lost out on the work.
In other words, there appears to be no incentive for you to report violations of SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction when it comes to stand-in work.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story I heard from an effected stand-in, but it exemplifies the point. The stand-in interviewed to stand in on a union production. The production did not hire him, but the stand-in had a suspicion it was going to try to use PAs as stand-ins instead. Somehow the stand-in was able to validate that the production was in fact using PAs as stand-ins and reported the production to SAG-AFTRA. Apparently the production was fined. While that stand-in missed out on that work because of that violation, he did not receive compensation for that violation. SAG-AFTRA did.
Because of this lack of incentive, it becomes rational to believe that there is more risk than reward in reporting violations related to standing in.
Granted, the calculus may change if productions egregiously flout SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction and don’t hire stand-ins, leaving stand-ins clawing for paychecks. But if a stand-in is working, and that stand-in witnesses a production violating SAG-AFTRA stand-in jurisdiction, there is not really any reason for that stand-in to report the violation to SAG-AFTRA or else risk feeling as if he or she could lose the stand-in job for reporting it.
(Note: Under the National Labor Relations Act, it would potentially be unlawful for an employer to retaliate against you for reporting such a grievance, more especially if that grievance is reported in a concerted fashion with other stand-ins.)
So what can you do?
It would seem most stand-ins are not working right now during the pandemic.
If you’re a stand-in working right now, it would be interesting to hear whether you have seen any SAG-AFTRA field reps show up on your job. If so, what did they do? Have you needed them? If you did need them, were they there when you needed them? Were they able to get you hazard pay for working during this hazardous time?
But if you’re not working, you might expect to return to stand-in work after the 2017 SAG-AFTRA TV/Theatrical Agreement expires on June 30, 2020. Whenever you return to work, some of the above questions about the hiring of stand-ins during this time might be hammered out, as well as violations and the like, so that you feel more protected and more incentivized to report violations related to SAG-AFTRA stand-in work.
(But we doubt it, in all honesty.)
So stay tuned. But also stay vigilant. And if you need a SAG-AFTRA field rep, consider some of the things above.
Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Post them in the comments below!