At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with the fear the virus could be transmitted via paper, TV and film productions quickly moved away from paper vouchers for accounting a day of stand-in work, moving almost by necessity to digital vouchers.
Run A Better Set (RABS) was around before the coronavirus pandemic, providing digital vouchers to productions in order to speed payroll accounting and reduce paper.
On a regular stand-in job I have, I have become a longtime user of RABS’s digital vouchers to record my daily earnings on set.
The experience has been generally positive, with a few negatives and one real cause for concern. Here, I talk about my experience using RABS digital vouchers.
What Is a Voucher?
A voucher is what many stand-ins use to record their earnings for a day of stand-in work. It’s like the TV and film business’s equivalent of a timecard.
In the recent past, vouchers were paper. A background PA would provide one to you when you reported to work.
You would fill it out with personal details including your name, address, phone number, and email address; your SAG-AFTRA number; your pay rate; any adjustments or bumps you accumulated during your workday; and any IRS or state-required information. At the end of the day, you would receive a paper copy of your voucher for your records.
Often, stand-ins would trade their vouchers with people in the wardrobe department for color cover. This provided a sort of security that the production would receive the garment back at the end of the day.
That said, a number of people have complained the open information on vouchers potentiated security risks such as identity theft. In the recent past, some productions would demand background actors put their Social Security Numbers on the front paperwork of paper vouchers, even though tax pages deeper in the voucher also contained the number.
In 2017, for jobs under the TV/Theatrical Agreement, SAG-AFTRA negotiated in its Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) to restrict this kind of demand and return to the “past practice” of processing a paper voucher that did not have a Social Security Number on it, when it already included the SAG-AFTRA number of the person and if the production already had a completed W-4 from the person. (The MOA language appears at 12(d)(v); the MOA erroneously lists the item as 12(d)(iv).)
Aside from the security issues of paper vouchers, at the onset of the pandemic, paper vouchers also seemed potentially dangerous.
Paper vouchers were a physical object many people might touch — not just the stand-in, but also the background PA, a wardrobe person trading color cover for a voucher, and any people at payroll who process the voucher. At the time, it was unknown how much of a threat paper was to contact spread of the novel coronavirus.
What Is a Digital Voucher?
Digital vouchers are essentially an online and/or electronic version of a paper voucher.
Commonly, you set up a digital voucher once. Any time you work on the production, your information populates the digital voucher.
By the end of the day, the background PA fills out any compensation, hours work, etc.
Once you are wrapped, the background PA finalizes your digital voucher, and you can access it online and/or electronically.
SAG-AFTRA and Its Pushback on Digital Vouchers
Up to spring 2020, apparently SAG-AFTRA had been dragging its feet on approving the use of digital vouchers.
According to RABS, a company providing a digital voucher service, non-union productions had used digital vouchers before the pandemic’s onset, but SAG-AFTRA had essentially prevented their prolific use on union productions.
To that point, concerns in the writing of SAG-AFTRA’s TV/Theatrical Agreement or maybe among persuasive SAG-AFTRA members may have slowed SAG-AFTRA’s widespread approval of using digital vouchers instead of paper vouchers. The relevant language appears in the 2014 version of the contract, modified by the 2017 MOA. For example, the contracts’ payment requirements for background actors and stand-ins working in the New York Zone are these (in relevant part):
Producer shall give each background actor at the time of reporting to the set a contract and/or voucher which should be in the preferred form attached hereto as Exhibit H. The voucher should include a space for the background actor’s SAG-AFTRA identification number, if any. Such contract and/or voucher shall be the background actor’s property until dismissal, at which time the background actor will retain one copy of the properly filled-in and executed contract and/or voucher.
Producer shall include the following on background actor’s check stub: actual date(s) worked; name and address of employer of record; employer’s state unemployment insurance identification number; and state where unemployment insurance is filed.
While this language does not require vouchers to be paper, the language does make a voucher implicitly material, in that it is “property” “given,” from which “one copy” can be provided to the background actor or stand-in. This writing may have given room for SAG-AFTRA to sidestep technological innovation or protect concerned members (or invent member concern?).
The funny thing is SAG-AFTRA has power to waive aspects of its agreements. Anecdotally, SAG-AFTRA has issued waivers of its more onerous contract language to various productions plenty of times before — to the apparent benefit of these productions over member general interests, and to member dismay. In my opinion, it’s less likely member concern was the issue around digital vouchers, and more likely SAG-AFTRA didn’t want to head-on address the technological innovation of digital vouchers and was stalling.
But several months into the pandemic, on July 8, 2020, SAG-AFTRA buckled, appearing more accepting of “electronic voucher applications” as the union called them. The union even brazenly said, as if this had always been its position, “As an organization, SAG-AFTRA embraces technological innovations in the production and post-production process that allow our members to experience a faster, safer and more efficient start and dismissal experience.” Ha.
SAG-AFTRA’s Guidance on the Use of Digital Vouchers
At the time of its milquetoast acceptance of digital vouchers, SAG-AFTRA’s guidance was simple:
- “You will always be told at the time of hire that an electronic voucher will be used on the set.”
- “You have the right to refuse the electronic application and request a paper voucher instead.”
However, by the time I was on a covered job in early September 2020 (two whole months after SAG-AFTRA’s approval of digital vouchers), the production did not have digital vouchers set up yet — and didn’t even have paper vouchers in stock. So, it was rather hard to refuse a digital voucher when production hadn’t set it up and didn’t have paper vouchers in stock. (What was I to do in that situation, SAG-AFTRA?) I ended up negotiating with casting and getting in writing my payment requirements to be settled at a later date.
That said, even in July 2020, SAG-AFTRA’s declaration that background actors and stand-ins had the “right to refuse” digital vouchers and request a paper voucher would be something worth testing, because it seemed quite unlikely a production would keep paper vouchers on hand once it switched over to digital vouchers.
To that point, imagine a day with many background actors and stand-ins deciding they wanted paper vouchers instead of digital ones? Or, more likely, imagine a future day in 2021 or later when a single day-playing background actor or stand-in requests a paper voucher, when the production to that date has not yet dealt with that request? (Will the production scramble or drag its feet on the request? Will the payroll company have even printed its most recent version of its voucher? Does the background actor or stand-in stay on the clock until provided a paper voucher?)
Generally, though, it seems digital vouchers have overtaken paper vouchers nearly wholly, at least in my limited view. SAG-AFTRA’s guidance on digital vouchers was probably less something it would enforce with much gusto, and more something of a reluctant resignation to the movement toward digital vouchers — while also a parachute in case digital vouchers rolled out with major problems.
RABS’s Digital Vouchers
My experience using digital vouchers is primarily in using RABS’s digital vouchers.
In my experience standing in on a production, the production’s payroll company provides RABS with a digital version of its paper voucher.
RABS puts the digital version online and hosts it on its web server.
Each time I work on the production, RABS populates that day’s digital voucher with the personal information I first reported to them.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, each day, a background casting director sets up my digital voucher with my base rate for the day.
Throughout the day, the background PA makes adjustments to the voucher.
At the end of the day, I get notice about my wrap time.
At this time, I can view a digital version of my voucher. I can also text or email it to myself for my records.
The voucher is also (temporarily) stored online on RABS’s server.
Pluses of Digital Vouchers
Wrap Speed (Not to Be Confused with Warp Speed!)
Digital vouchers are really fantastic given how they tend to get you quickly out of the door when you wrap.
Basically, when you wrap, you can head for the exit sign — rather than have to find someone, get in line, and get your voucher signed before leaving.
Less Paper and Potential for Viral Spread
Digital vouchers also eliminate paper. This is not only great in reducing the potential threat of viral transmission, but is also great for the environment in saving trees!
Helps for Filing Claims against a Production
In addition, given you can download a copy of your digital voucher, it may be easier for you to file claims against a production if need be.
Having a digital vouchers saves you the added steps of photographing or scanning a paper voucher for your claim. You can simply email the digital voucher as an attachment!
RABS’s digital vouchers include an “audit trail” on a second page. This information is helpful for logging “who does what when” to your digital voucher.
So, if something changes in your digital voucher, the time of the change and who did it should be recorded somewhere you can see.
Also, with RABS, you can get text notifications of any breakfast, lunch, and wrap times. The background PA initiates these notifications.
These notifications are helpful not just for the information they provide, but they are also helpful should you have a claim against a production around NDBs, lunches, wrap time, or meal penalties.
Your Gross Pay
One of the biggest pluses of RABS’s digital vouchers is you see your gross pay on your digital voucher.
In the past, your gross pay for the day was almost always your best estimate. Websites or apps claimed to help you calculate your gross pay. However, those tools were notoriously unreliable.
With RABS’s digital vouchers, your gross pay appears to more reliably calculate and appear on your voucher, giving you a more confident view of your gross pay for the day.
If you are a stand-in who also collects unemployment, seeing your gross pay on your digital voucher will help you to better report your income for the week to the unemployment office.
Overall, RABS Digital Vouchers Work Well
On the whole, digital vouchers work pretty well.
At first, they took some getting used to, as production seemed to wrestle with how to do different things on a digital voucher, especially trying to do them over the small screen on a mobile phone. But digital vouchers go pretty well when the background PA preparing them is versed in them.
And digital vouchers clearly give you a lot of information in a form you can easily email, save for your records, and report.
Minuses of Digital Vouchers
After You Wrap, a Black Hole When You Have Objections to Voucher Information
Given how RABS works, one of the bigger minuses of digital vouchers is this: If you see an issue with your voucher after you wrap, you can feel at a loss on how to address it.
RABS provides a notes section where you can type a question or otherwise object to something in your digital voucher. But that section provides little confidence to a stand-in on how to deal with a meritorious objection to what is on (or is left off) the digital voucher.
For example, for RABS’s digital vouchers, it’s not clear who receives a note you might add. The BG PA? Accounting? RABS? Will SAG-AFTRA see the note somewhere in the audit trail if you submit it?
Asking a background PA, it appears one recipient of the note may be the background PA, but reportedly the background PA doesn’t get a notification of the note, making uncertain whether a background PA will know about an objection.
Coercive Language around Adding Notes to Your Voucher
Plus, RABS’s “Add Note” section disclaims “Adding notes do not guarantee you any results.”
By my read, that kind of emphatic warning sounds coercive, persuading you against submitting any grievance around the information on the digital voucher.
At that, the warning almost seems to license production to ignore grievances submitted as notes. The warning as worded does not strike the right chord when soliciting “notes” from union stand-ins working under a collective bargaining agreement.
I believe the “Add Note” section should be reworked to explain just exactly what it is, what it is for, and who gets the information submitted. Even better would be to change it to something like “Report an Issue with This Voucher,” with a disclaimer saying something like “The background PA will text you with a reply” and the timeline in which it would be reasonable to receive a reply.
Addressing Voucher Issues “Off the Clock” Rather than “On the Clock”
One way to more quickly address any issues with your digital voucher is to get the mobile phone number for the background PA when you are on a stand-in job. That way, you can text the background PA if there are any issues with your final voucher, so you can make a correction.
That’s generally what I do. What’s not so great about that approach is after I wrap and am home, if I’m seeing issues with my digital vouchers, I’m addressing them while off the clock, with a background PA who may also be off the clock.
The paper-voucher system was different. You would settle your voucher while on the clock, and you would usually leave work confident in the information in your copy of the paper voucher. And in full disclosure, my digital vouchers have commonly-enough had reporting errors that would be caught were they paper vouchers.
Around compensation disputes for background actors, the TV/Theatrical Agreement reads, “If a dispute exists as to whether or not additional compensation is due the background actor, the designated official of the Producer shall note the claim on the background actor’s voucher in the presence of the background actor.” Likewise, you could write “DISPUTED” on your paper voucher and production could sign off that you dispute the information on this paper voucher.
RABS doesn’t seem to have a method for you to write “DISPUTED” on a voucher — and I believe it should. A note section doesn’t cut it.
Vouchers Won’t Stay Online “Forever”
Perhaps no stand-in should expect RABS or any online business to exist forever, always permitting you online access to your digital information. However, I was surprised to find RABS will be taking down my digital vouchers when my production ends.
According to a RABS representative, though, “RABS always sends out an email before the show goes offline to let BG know to download their vouchers for their records and to follow up with any outstanding issues.”
Stand-ins can get busy, and their work is rarely in front of a computer, so if you’re not given enough time to download your digital vouchers, you may lose access to that information.
To guard against surprises, at the end of a work date, make it a habit to email your digital voucher to yourself once it is in a final form. Not only will you have that information somewhere in your inbox around the date of work, but you’ll also be spared from a short-notice announcement from RABS saying your digital vouchers are going offline!
More than Minuses, A Real Area of Concern about RABS Digital Vouchers
It strikes me that RABS is not very secure with respect to access to digital vouchers.
For accessing someone’s vouchers, one need only have that person’s phone number and the last four digits of his/her Social Security Number.
Given the last four digits of one’s SSN show up frequently on documents that obscure the total SSN, it only takes someone who knows your phone number and also knows these four digits to access your account and see your digital vouchers — along with any personal or wage information.
Very recently, I brought these concerns to the attention of RABS.
Privacy Threat and RABS’s Response
At the time, RABS’s digital vouchers disclosed some personal information but concealed other personal information.
Analyzing my early RABS vouchers from around October 2020, my name, email address, wages, and my SAG-AFTRA number were completely viewable. My birthdate, phone number, and SSN were partially viewable, though they still reflected some key personal information. My mailing address was completely redacted.
Possibly in response to my inquiry, RABS recently concealed more personal information from my digital vouchers, perhaps even going a bit overboard.
For example, by mid-February, RABS had completely redacted the name of the production in at least one of my digital vouchers, which was unhelpful in case I wanted to file a claim using this digital voucher, or in case I wanted to understand what production I worked on on that day. (By late February, RABS seems to have recognized the overstep and gone back to completely disclosing the name of the production in my digital vouchers.)
In a voucher from later in February, in addition to partially redacting my phone number, RABS was now partially redacting my email address. My SSN and birthdate were now completely redacted, as was my SAG-AFTRA number. In addition, RABS now included a headline on the digital voucher reading “Voucher Sanitized For Privacy.”
Obviously, RABS is evolving, and it appears RABS also responds quickly to concerns.
But the Security Issue Remains
While RABS appears to demonstrate an interest in security by responding to privacy concerns with redactions, and by touting how they secure information, RABS has not changed the method for accessing my data.
In other words, access to my work information is accessible if you have my phone number and the last four digits of my SSN. It seems to me, to improve security, RABS should permit its users to choose their passwords, not just limit access to four digits — and four digits a number of people may easily access or know.
I would rather my voucher information be more or less fully expressed on my digital voucher and my information password-protected by a self-selected password, than for my voucher information to be more or less concealed from my view but accessible with a weak four-digit password one might easily find. But I’m just one person.
Hopefully the issue can be addressed quickly as not to put RABS at a competitive disadvantage in the digital voucher space.
When I think of digital vouchers, what comes first to mind is how quickly I get to leave the job when I am wrapped. That is one of the biggest pluses for me. Also, knowing my gross pay has been great.
However, finding errors in my vouchers after I have wrapped has been a pain. It means I have to go through the trouble while off the clock of bothering the background PA to address the error, then waiting to see if the error does get addressed. Plus, my recent realization that RABS’s digital vouchers are protected by a password I do not control, but which may be easily discovered without a lot of work, moved me enough to write to RABS about it and blog about it as an area of concern.
Paper does not appear to be as much of a threat of transmission of the novel coronavirus as thought at the beginning of the pandemic (I am not a scientist making a claim), so it’s not clear whether paper vouchers might rein again once the pandemic ends. I suspect digital vouchers will become the new normal.
However, without clearer methods for communicating issues with digital vouchers, protections negotiated by SAG-AFTRA for time spent dealing with errors in them after wrap, and better security around their hosting, I can’t yet fully sing the praises of digital vouchers.
Perhaps other companies than RABS provide a digital voucher service that provides a better experience. Despite that speculation, the evolving digital voucher service from RABS appears to be getting better and better with time, and I would not mind experiencing it again in improved form on another production.
Have you used digital vouchers? What has been your experience of them over paper? Have you embraced them? Have you ever rejected them? And what do you think of RABS’s digital vouchers? Share your thoughts in the comments below!