Wednesday, April 9, 2008

TV workers claim they were denied overtime pay, meal breaks

A dozen employees of reality and game shows file complaints with the state.
By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 9, 2008
A dozen workers on various reality TV and game shows filed claims Tuesday with a state agency alleging that their employers improperly denied them overtime pay and meal breaks.

The group included writers, production assistants and craft services workers from "American Idol," "Amazing Race" and "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?"

"We are asking to be respected as workers and that production companies that are making so much money stop violating our rights," said Justin Buckles, a former production coordinator for "American Idol." The claims were filed with the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, which is part of the Department of Industrial Relations.

Buckles and other claimants were assisted by the Writers Guild of America, West, which has been waging a campaign to extend union benefits to workers in reality TV.

So far, the effort has yielded few tangible results.

"This is clearly the WGA's attack on the reality TV industry because it's been unable to organize that industry," said attorney Ivy Kagan Bierman of Loeb & Loeb, who represents several reality TV producers, including "American Idol" producer FremantleMedia.

According to Hollywood Today, workers from so-called “reality shows” such as American Idol, Amazing Race and American Inventor will gather on Tuesday, April 8 at the Van Nuys office of the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) to file claims stating the producers of the shows owe them for unpaid overtime.

If they follow through with their plans and the claims are upheld, the producers could also be liable for interest and penalties. By some estimates, the amount could be half a million dollars.

(As much money as that sounds like, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the zillions of dollars these reality shows have brought in to the networks and the show producers.)

Many people don’t realize the number of “behind the scenes” workers who are necessary to bring one of these “reality TV” shows to the screen — including writers, production assistants, contestant coordinators, craft services and office workers. Yep, writers. You didn’t really think they were all totally unscripted, did you?

A study released by the Writers Guild of America last fall, Harsh Reality, claimed reality TV workers are routinely forced to work long hours without overtime, denied meal breaks and often provided with no health care or pension benefits.

At least on the surface, a job in television seems “glamorous.” So there are generally a lot more people who want jobs in the entertainment industry than there are jobs to accommodate them. Which means pay and benefits — especially for the behind-the-scenes people — can often be low. Filming schedules are grueling, and deadlines are tight. Anyone who’s been in the business for any period of time understands all that.

But that doesn’t allow producers to force workers to skip breaks and meals, or refuse to pay them overtime. Those things are a matter of law. And “forgetting” to keep track of the hours worked by those “little people” who make the shows possible isn’t going to get the producers off the hook. Because, ya know, keeping adequate records is also a requirement of the law.

Those reality shows make a ton of money for the networks and the producers — in part because of their relatively low cost of production. If it turns out the workers’ claims are true, that means at least some of that “low cost” has been achieved by taking advantage of their workers and by breaking the law. If that’s the case, shame on the producers and shame on the networks.

Maybe the producers should have invested a few dollars of those profits in good time and attendance tracking systems. :)

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