On May 6, 2022, SAG-AFTRA agreed to an extension of the Return To Work Agreement (RTWA) along with other signatory unions, that will expire on July 15, 2022.
The RTWA covers the work of stand-ins under SAG-AFTRA’s Theatrical Agreement as well as its Television Agreement, which covers nearly all feature films and most dramatic television series not shot in front of a live audience.
Protections for Stand-Ins under the Original RTWA
When the RTWA’s first version became effective on September 21, 2020, stand-ins immediately gained protections.
At the time, under Item 17, the RTWA incorporated certain language from the publication known as the “White Paper.”
The White Paper was a multiunion and multiemployer proposal for the industry for the safe resumption of motion picture, television, and streaming production during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The White Paper included a section titled, “Special Considerations for Cast and Crew Working in Close Proximity to Performers.” Under that section was the only reference to stand-ins in the entire proposal.
That White Paper reference read:
Stand-ins should wear face coverings even if the performer they are standing in for may not.
Implications of the RTWA on Stand-In Work
As a result of this language, stand-ins could wear masks when standing in.
Why this is interesting to note is because stand-ins are often used for lighting, and if they are wearing a mask, directors of photography (DPs) may have taken issue with lighting masked stand-ins.
This is also interesting to note because stand-ins are one of the few SAG-AFTRA job positions that do not have to work without a mask. In contrast, when doing their work, SAG-AFTRA background actors and performers usually have to work for some time on camera without a mask.
After more than a year of stand-ins’ wearing masks while lighting on innumerable production days, it is now clearly established that DPs can do their jobs effectively while using stand-ins who are wearing face coverings (like face masks for protecting them and others on set from coronavirus infection).
Other than on case by case bases, there is little argument that a DP cannot light shots using stand-ins who are wearing face coverings to protect them and others on set from coronavirus infection.
The Most Recent RTWA Successor Eliminated Stand-In Protections
By the July 19, 2021 version of the RTWA, the White Paper incorporations moved from Item 17 to Item 19 of the RTWA.
On page 3 of a letter dated May 6, 2022, which effectively was the latest version of the RTWA, SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP along with other signatory unions agreed to “Eliminate Item 19” from the RTWA.
As a result, SAG-AFTRA agreed to eliminate from the RTWA the language from the White Paper that read “Stand-ins should wear face coverings even if the performer they are standing in for may not.”
What This Means for Stand-Ins
Without the White Paper language that “Stand-ins should wear face coverings even if the performer they are standing in for may not,” stand-ins have no language to point to in order to support their wearing masks on camera.
Although a production may generally require its employees to wear face coverings, background actors typically work on camera without masks and are excepted from mask requirements when working on camera. The current RTWA makes no specific reference to stand-ins, only ever speaking generally of “background actors.” The relevant SAG-AFTRA contracts define stand-ins as “background actors.”
So, the case may be that an employer signed to the RTWA may require stand-ins to work without masks when they are standing in, because stand-ins are fundamentally and contractually “background actors,” and when they are standing in, they are working to a large extent on camera, or at least are being lit for photographic purposes.
Now, stand-ins won’t have the language to point to to disagree and argue that stand-ins “should wear face coverings.” So, the case may be that a production requires stand-ins to go maskless when they are working, even though a production may require other crew members to wear face coverings when working.
Stand-Ins Falls through the Cracks AGAIN
As Stand-In Central has numerously pointed out over the years, stand-ins often fall through the cracks. They are often overlooked with respect to production information, crediting, status, safety, and collective bargaining, largely because stand-ins straddle a line between being “crew” and “talent.” (Stand-In Central prefers to see stand-ins as “quasi-crew.”)
Here, with the latest version of the RTWA, stand-ins fall through the cracks again. Stand-ins are different from performers and background actors during the pandemic, because performers and background actors, while unmasked, usually aren’t in front of the same unmasked person for extended periods of exposure. Stand-ins, however, may stand on a mark immediately in front of another stand-ins for nearly an hour at a time in some cases.
If stand-ins are unmasked when they are standing in, and if one of those stand-ins is infected with the novel coronavirus, the other stand-in faces the potential of a concentrated amount of exposure to an infectious disease.
Put differently: If you’re standing in for nearly an hour nose to nose with another stand-in, and you’re both unmasked because production made you, the latest RTWA provides you with no more protection against that situation and vulnerability.
SAG-AFTRA, in agreeing to eliminate the White Paper language that protected stand-ins by permitting them to wear masks when working, let stand-ins and their unique line of work fall through the cracks again, failing them from a health and safety standpoint. Although SAG-AFTRA on its website announces it has a “continued commitment to keeping casts, crews and all set workers safe in light of the changing impact of COVID-19,” the agreement to eliminate the White Paper language from the RTWA is wholly inconsistent with that professed “commitment.”
Stay safe out there, stand-ins.
In the event an RTWA employer requires stand-ins to go maskless, your best bet may be to band second team together on a job and all agree to wear masks as activity aimed for mutual aid and protection.
If you do so (or at least two you of you do so), your activity may be protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. In being protected, your employer may not lawfully interfere with that activity.
Has an employer required you to stand in without a mask? If so, share your experience below!