by Zack Arnold
Awareness is a powerful thing.
Since the shutdowns began in March I have had countless conversations with editors, assistants, producers, directors, and otherwise in the Hollywood creative community about what we are all collectively experiencing due to the pandemic. Now that the vast majority of us are not commuting 2-3 hours per day, working late nights and long weekends, or stuck in windowless offices and stages breathing recycled air, we’ve had the opportunity to take a breath (wearing our masks, of course) and think about our lives. And with more sleep, more time with family, and more time to reflect on past life choices, the sentiment I’ve heard above and beyond any other is “I can’t go back to the way things were before.”
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to provide a little perspective.
It was this sentiment of not wanting to return to the way we were doing things before that led me to write an article about how normal wasn’t working which quickly went viral and was read by over 100,000 people worldwide across every sector of the entertainment industry far beyond post-production.
This article re-ignited several difficult but necessary conversations about the way we work in the entertainment industry and what safety protocols and policies must be put in place to protect all of us as we begin to slowly ease back into the cutting rooms and mixing stages (or more likely working from home).
There are so many things that weren’t working before, but in order to focus our efforts I believe there are three key issues that must be addressed now:
- Should we have to sign liability waivers when we go back to work?
- Is now the time to address the long hours, the unpaid OT and weekends, and the expectation that we should work a “standard” 60 hour week?
- How can we be compensated for our equipment if we’re asked (or forced) to work from home?
I addressed all of these and more in my podcast interview with Cathy Repola, National Executive Director of MPEG. If you haven’t had the opportunity to listen to the entire interview, below are the key takeaways to help facilitate a productive conversation about how we all go back to work safely in a post-pandemic world (that unfortunately still adheres to pre-pandemic expectations).
Should We Sign Liability Waivers? And What If We Get Sick?
It seems logical to me that nobody should ever have to sign away their safety and assume their own liability in the workplace, but we work in Hollywood where the culture is such that we are treated like replaceable widgets. Luckily if we get sick at work due to Covid-19 there are already employment laws in place to protect us via workman’s comp. But aside from general labor laws, here is where Cathy stands on signing waivers. “We tell members not to sign [waivers], it is absolutely the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe work environment. They can’t ask people to sign it. They’re not supposed to ask people to sign it. We’re telling members…don’t sign anything without sending it to us. “
On this point the advice seemed pretty clear: DO. NOT. SIGN. WAIVERS.
Working under the assumption we can go back to work knowing that we’re not liable for getting sick and that it’s the employer’s responsibility to provide us a safe working environment, what happens if God forbid we do get sick? Are we protected? Or replaceable?
According to Cathy, “Collectively, the unions believe that if people test positive and come down with COVID and they’re sent home that they should be paid sick leave while they’re out. They should be able to return to their jobs when they’re well. And that’s the position we’re taking, but this still has to be negotiated.”
Is Now the Time to Fight For More Humane Hours?
The hours we work is a far more complicated issue than liability waivers and workman’s comp. This is an issue that has gone back and forth on the negotiating table literally for decades, and the inevitable conclusion that everyone seems to come to is, “Now is not the time to fight for better hours. We’ll address that next time.”
Due to Covid-19 changing everything about the way we live and work, I believe there has never been a better time for us to fight for more humane work hours, and I argue in detail how we can do so in the article: Dear Hollywood: It’s Time For An Intervention About the Hours We Work.
Prioritizing work-life balance and the health of all the workers in Hollywood is also a priority for Cathy who said this about the way we work now: “The expectation is that you’ll work as long as you have to in order to get the job done on any particular day, regardless of how many hours that means. This is a recurring theme – the long hours, the exhaustion, the burnout. It’s troubling not just that that’s happened for so long but that the industry condones it. It seems to not care. They’re starting to care now, which is a good thing that we got their attention. Yet there’s never been a push to collectively change this.”
Until now, that is. If ever there was an opportunity to do something about the unmeetable expectations and the path of destruction they create throughout the Hollywood machine, this is our opportunity.
But before understanding how we get there, we have to better understand how we got here. I asked Cathy how it is that we’ve reached the point of absurdity that we have to fight for working less than a “standard” 12 hour day (that of course becomes 16+). As she explains, “Editors are what we call ‘on call.’ [The contract] doesn’t mandate that you work 60 hours, it doesn’t mandate that you work 12 hours a day. It wasn’t intended to require people to work 60 hours. The problem is it’s a guaranteed five day workweek with no real set hours attached to it other than the 60 hours of contributions that go into your pension and health plans. That language has been there for decades. So they figure if they’re giving you sixty hours of health contributions, they want 60 hours of work. It’s obviously completely flipped into something where I think the hours are outrageous. And I think it’s not acceptable to demand that people work these types of hours.”
I’m a big believer in the idea that “more hours do not equal better hours” and we as adults should be able to manage our own time (and our creativity) to meet your creative expectations within your deadlines. Other than that, leave us alone to do the work you’re paying us for. Cathy clearly agrees. “You’re adults, you know how much work has to get done, you know what needs to be finished before you leave. At the end of the day you’re going to get all your work done because that’s what you all do. I know you almost kill yourselves to do it. So let’s not kill ourselves.”
So how can we leave behind the mentality that producers expect us to “put in our sixty?” What should we all collectively fight for, Cathy? “What we’re saying is limit the workday to 10 hours. You can still have an ‘on call’ classification, still get your 60 hours of pension and health contributions for a five day work week.”
Sounds simple enough, but what if you’re on your own in a small dark room being pressured by directors and producers who can replace you tomorrow if you don’t meet their needs? Cathy knows this is a complicated position and offers the following as advice. “I’m not the one sitting there in the editing chair when all this stuff comes up and saying just tell them no. I know it sounds easy, but it’s got to become the norm. If everyone’s a squeaky wheel, there are no squeaky wheels. The squeaky wheel should be the person who’s willing to do it. We all need to start acting collectively as a union looking out for each other. It’s really, really, really scary the first couple times you do it, but the more you do it, it becomes less scary. And you start to realize you’re not asking for anything special, you’re just asking to be compensated for what’s under the collective bargaining agreement.”
If We’re Working From Home, Should We Charge For Our Equipment? Our Utilities Expenses?
When it comes to the hours we work, it’s fairly simple, but where things become far more complex is who supplies the equipment, and if we supply it from home if we should be compensated accordingly.
Pre-pandemic the assumption was that working from home was a luxury we were afforded, a perk if you will. But in a post-pandemic world we as post-production professionals have largely kept projects moving towards the finish line (and thus allowing the studios to still generate revenue) using our own equipment. Whether it’s a full Avid suite or a laptop on the kitchen table, our ability to deliver has kept the machine running. Doesn’t that mean we should be compensated accordingly?
Here’s Cathy’s position on kit rentals and more. “The employers look at us like they’re doing us a favor by letting us work at home. Actually, you’re doing them a favor. They want to get their product out, right? They don’t want added liability. There are insurance policies, they buy all this stuff, so you’re doing them a favor. We have to reverse the thinking you’re helping them manage to get their product out.”
On a fundamental level I agree with this wholeheartedly. I’ve been saying for years that we’re not lucky to be here, Hollywood is lucky to have us. Should we be compensated for the use of our equipment? Yes! Yes we should.
How we are compensated is infinitely more complicated as Cathy explained. “So what are you supplying? How much are you getting for it? A lot of people have not worked from home before. So they’re clueless about like, I don’t even know where to start. What’s fair, what should I be asking for? So we’re trying to compile all of that. At the moment in the union contract all it basically says is that they have to pay for your equipment. There’s no fee set to it. And that’s unfortunate, but I do think it’s sort of an opportunity for us to take advantage of the situation and try to put some guidelines in place.”
So does that mean we all get the same weekly rental fee (if any) no matter how much or little we contribute to the project? Seems like this could get messy really quickly. Cathy agrees. “I think it’s gonna vary depending on what type of product people are working on. It’s going to be different in features than it might be in scripted television than it might be an unscripted television. I’ll say that it’s one of my top priorities. I hope that soon we’ll have some semblance of what it ought to look like. If anybody needs help now or needs information, please reach out to us. It’s a priority.”
We Are All In This Together
There is no doubt we are in uncharted waters right now as we all collectively figure out how to go back to work safely while still maintaining our health, our relationships, and our sanity in the process. But if there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear to me, Covid-19 has not just changed the game but the entire playing field. If ever there was a time to come together and fight for more humane working conditions, better hours, and proper compensation for what we bring to any given production – if ever there was a time to prioritize our health & well-being – that time is now.
Zack Arnold is an MPEG member and host of the Optimize Yourself podcast. Opinions expressed in this story are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.