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
Currently, we are amid a coronavirus pandemic. As of this post, nearly 2.5 million people in the United States have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. According to the Washington Post, at least 119,000 people as of data today have died from complications of that viral infection. Today has been, to date, the highest single-day total for new coronavirus cases in the United States, with approximately 36,000 people testing positive for the virus.
This is a snapshot of how serious, and how deadly, this virus is, and this pandemic is. It is also a snapshot of how serious and how deadly the virus still continues to be as of June 24, 2020. California, where much of the entertainment industry produces, has taken to mandating face coverings in public spaces and when employed at work under most circumstances. The entertainment industry more generally has published recommendations on how productions should work amid the pandemic, both general recommendations as well as more specific recommendations. The general recommendations are for the crew to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) pretty much at all times. The specific recommendations are to create separate zones on set to restrict access to the more critical areas of a production, as well as to conduct frequent coronavirus testing of all who work on the production.
The recommendations still, however, presume that actors who are on camera will not be wearing face masks in order to protect themselves from infection or from infecting other actors, crew, or stand-ins. This presumption is highly problematic, because it puts actors at danger. Arguably, when actors don’t wear face masks or other personal protective equipment during this dangerous time, they create an even more dangerous work environment than there already is when they are wearing PPE before their on-camera work.
SAG-AFTRA’s TV/Theatrical Agreement — the collective bargaining agreement under which many stand-ins work as “background actors” — contains language around “Work of an Unusual or Hazardous Character.” It appears in Section 7 for both Schedule X, Part I, and Schedule X, Part II (“Sections 7”). This language specifies that “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 […] work of a rough or dangerous character.” We’ll refer to this first passage as the Hazard Notification Requirement.
The language goes on to say that “Background actors who are hired on the minimum check and who thereafter accept hazardous work shall be entitled to additional compensation, and the amount of additional compensation shall be agreed to between the background actor and the Producer, or the Producer’s representative, prior to the performance of such work.” We’ll refer to this second passage as the Hazard Pay Entitlement.
This post talks about the necessity of paying stand-ins working during the coronavirus pandemic hazard compensation per the relevant Section 7. It aims to help stand-ins as they try to secure “hazard pay” when they are standing in during the coronavirus pandemic. This is because stand-in work during a pandemic is presumptively unusual, hazardous, and dangerous.
Work during a Pandemic Is Presumptively “Unusual” and “Hazardous”
In order to trigger Section 7, work must be of an “unusual” or of a “hazardous” character.
Note that the work must be of either of these characteristics, and does not necessarily need to be both, in order to trigger Section 7.
Arguably, if the work is both unusual and hazardous, then the argument that Section 7 is triggered is reinforced.
If a stand-in is working on a set during the coronavirus pandemic, the argument is clear that this work is now unusual.
The CBA does not account for pandemic conditions. There is no language that speaks to “if there is a pandemic in place.” Because of that fact, pandemic conditions could never be construed as “usual” work for stand-ins.
Even if the pandemic continues for a long time during a production, and if it becomes “usual” for a repeat stand-in on that production to work under pandemic conditions, it would still be “unusual” per the CBA because the CBA does not account for pandemic conditions. In other words, pandemic conditions are “unusual” given that the CBA does not speak to them as usual.
Furthermore, neither SAG-AFTRA, nor SAG, nor AFTRA workers have ever been confronted with pandemic conditions at work, or the new, very real health and safety protocols they seem to require. So, relative to the history of the unions’ work, this pandemic is certifiably “unusual.”
So, clearly, standing in during a pandemic is reasonably construed as “unusual,” so standing in during this time should trigger Section 7 language.
And standing in during a pandemic is reasonably construed as “hazardous,” too.
Naturally, a pandemic by its very nature is a hazardous time, during which one may risk infection if not taking health and safety precautions.
At that, one may take precautions yet still end up infected.
While the recommendations for the current pandemic are to wash hands, wear face masks, and keep six feet apart from others, you might be following those recommendations but others might not. This may mean that while you follow all recommendations, someone may invade your personal six-foot radius, without a mask, and touch you without having washed hands as recently as might be necessary. Such invasive activity is not a hazard outside a pandemic, but such invasive activity is clearly a hazard during this pandemic.
If local governments mandate the wearing of masks when employed (as was the case in the State of California at publication time), and if those mandates derive from a department of health (again, as was the case in California at publication time), then also production work, like all other work, is hazardous. Put differently, there is nothing exceptional about TV/film production — or more specifically stand-in work — that makes it immune to or exempt from the public health hazards inherent in performing it.
Underscoring the evident “hazardous” character of the work is that crew will be wearing PPE in order to keep themselves safe and as well as those around them. This recommendation for the crew to wear PPE comes from entertainment industry guidelines that, in general, are informed by epidemiologists and those who have worked in public health.
So, if crew are wearing PPE, then it is understood that the environment in which they are working is hazardous, and by hazardous, it is thereby and also dangerous.
That it is “hazardous” triggers Section 7. That it is “dangerous” triggers the Hazard Notification Requirement.
The Hazard Notification Requirement
The aforementioned Hazard Notification Requirement of Sections 7 states that “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 […] work of a rough or dangerous character.”
So, when you are contacted to stand in on a TV or film production, this would mean that the casting director will notify you if your work is of a dangerous character.
While it might be assumed that stand-in work during a pandemic is dangerous, that would appear to be beside the point considering the language of the CBA. Given the language of the CBA, there is no room for casting directors not to notify a stand-in of work of a dangerous character. In other words, a stand-in must be notified of the dangerous work, even if the stand-in knows a pandemic is in effect.
What does a stand-in gain if not so notified of the dangerous work? Sections 7 say, “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.”
So, if a stand-in is not notified of the dangerous work, the stand-in can refuse the work upon arrival at the job. This at least guarantees the stand-in a half-check, or if remaining on the job for longer than that time, a check for actual time worked. However, the production may still keep the stand-in to do other background actor work.
What is not clear is how this kind of reassignment a production works during a pandemic. During a pandemic, arguably one cannot get away from dangerous working conditions as they exist throughout the set and its various zones. So reassigning a stand-in to do background work does not necessarily remove the stand-in from dangerous working conditions to which the stand-in was not notified. In fact, if production tries to reassign an objecting stand-in to do background actor work, it is the obligation for the production by Sections 7 to say that that background actor work would be of a dangerous character. If the production does not, that reassigned stand-in can, by the language of Sections 7, refuse it as well (and thus be reassigned again?).
But even sitting in holding, or going to lunch with other crew members, may be construed as “dangerous work” given the risks of contagion being just as prevalent (or more) in those places. It would be unethical and arguably unsafe to reassign a stand-in not notified of work of a dangerous character and keep that stand-in at the job in a hazardous and dangerous environment as evidently the pandemic creates. It would be ethical and safer to release that stand-in upon the stand-in’s refusal to do work for which the stand-in was not notified that it was of a dangerous character.
The Hazard Pay Entitlement
So, what if you are notified of work of a dangerous character, and you agree to perform it?
In such an event, the Hazard Pay Entitlement is triggered. In Sections 7, the CBA reads, “Background actors who are hired on the minimum check and who thereafter accept hazardous work shall be entitled to additional compensation, and the amount of additional compensation shall be agreed to between the background actor and the Producer, or the Producer’s representative, prior to the performance of such work.”
Notably, this passage uses the word “entitled” when it comes to a background actor getting additional compensation for work of a dangerous character. If a pandemic is raging, and if a pandemic makes the work unusual, hazardous and dangerous, then hazard pay is an entitlement.
This is to say that a stand-in working during a pandemic, amid crew donning PPE because of the hazards inherent in the work, should automatically receive hazard pay (“additional compensation”).
Furthermore, what that hazard pay amount should be, should be settled between the stand-in and the production before standing in. This would mean that if you are a stand-in in at call, and if you are watching a second-team rehearsal ten minutes later, you and production had better have settled the hazard pay amount before that point, because you are performing work when you watch a marking rehearsal as a stand-in. You are also performing work when you step on a mark, do a second-team rehearsal, etc.
The question is, How much hazard pay should you get?
Sections 7 give no guidance on how much to pay for hazard pay. Nor do they specify whether the additional compensation should be a bump (a lump sum), an adjustment (an increase of your hourly rate), or both.
This is to say that the CBA basically leaves hazard pay as negotiable.
During the pandemic, it is very hard for a stand-in to be faced with personally negotiating for hazard pay compensation, considering that SAG-AFTRA has had a number of months to address the topic of hazard pay for background actors and stand-ins. Perhaps by the time productions are rolling again, hazard pay questions will be settled.
If hazard pay questions are settled, that does not mean you have to agree with them. For example, if a production agrees early on to give a standard $50 hazard pay bump to stand-ins working during the pandemic, and if you were not a part of that discussion, you can negotiate for something higher.
Truth be told, it’s hard to say what a hazard pay bump during a pandemic should be. It might be worthwhile to structure hazard pay bumps in different ways. One idea might be to request various bumps: $100 for the day with mask on, and an additional $100 each time the stand-in is asked by an assistant director to work without a mask.
Considering that if a stand-in contracts SARS-CoV-2 on set, that should mean that stand-in could be out of work for weeks or even debilitated, then it is understandable to ask for a “high” dollar amount as a bump during a dangerous time such as this pandemic. Probably no amount of additional compensation would cover quarantine or hospitalization, but given that either could be expensive for the stand-in, hazard pay should be high, not low.
If you do test positive for SARS-CoV-2 after working on a production, you should contact the production as soon as possible to inform them and to fill out a report. In California, contracting SARS-CoV-2 is presumed to have happened on the job unless the employer can prove otherwise. This presumption that the infection happened at work may help you in receiving workers’ compensation to replace lost income and/or cover hospitalization costs.
The TV/Theatrical Agreement expires on June 30, 2020. After that expiry, SAG-AFTRA members need to reject or ratify a recently negotiated tentative agreement before it takes effect. Sometimes productions will honor the terms of the tentative agreement before it is rejected or ratified. But whatever the case, given SAG-AFTRA’s press release about the new tentative agreement, it does not appear that the proposed agreement will change any language in Sections 7 of Schedule X, Part I, or Schedule X, Part II.
This issue of working during a pandemic naturally makes one think of how hazardous and dangerous stand-in work has become. With crew wearing masks and zones restricting access, and actors at times not wearing PPE, the hazardous and dangerous nature of the work will be underscored. So, given the obviousness of the hazardous and dangerous work, Sections 7 should be important for stand-ins to pay attention to and enforce.
The Hazard Notification Requirement gives you power to refuse dangerous work if you were not notified of it and still receive partial compensation. The Hazard Pay Entitlement means you are entitled to additional compensation when you perform dangerous work, and the agreement on that compensation must be before you perform stand-in work. Sadly, minimum compensation is not established for hazard pay in Sections 7, so stand-ins will have to negotiate for themselves. The advice? Go high, especially considering working now, you risk infection that could put you out of work for weeks.
Will SAG-AFTRA lend a hand to stand-ins in guiding them to negotiate for their hazard pay?
No. Maybe. No. Probably not. No.
Well, … We’ll see.
Do you have advice on negotiating for hazard pay? How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your understanding of hazard pay? Post your comments below!