Many Background Performers Feel Left Out Of Pay Equity & MeToo Movements: “Sexual Harassment Was Part Of The Job”
In the new era of pay equity and #MeToo, few workers in the film and TV industry have less of it than background performers.
SAG-AFTRA says that pre-pandemic, 15% of its 160,000 members “typically worked background in a given year, which dropped to only 11% last year,” down from about 24,000 a year to just 17,600 in 2020. They earn union pay and benefits but often work alongside non-union extras who do exactly the same work for a lot less pay and no benefits – the very definition of pay inequity.
And many background actors complain of mistreatment on the set. Since the rise of the #MeToo movement, more than three years ago, SAG-AFTRA has taken numerous measures to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, but many background performers feel that they’re still vulnerable to bullies and sexual predators.
More than half of the 221 union and non-union background performers who took part in a recent survey conducted by the Anita Hill-led Hollywood Commission said that they’d been bullied on-set in the year prior to taking he survey, 17% said they’d been sexually coerced, and 3% said they had been sexually assaulted in the workplace. Even if the commission’s sampling represents the experiences of only a small percentage of all background performers — union and non-union alike — that’s still a lot of bullying, coercing and assaulting.
“Background performers are certainly among the most vulnerable on the set,” said Matt Kavanaugh, a member of the SAG-AFTRA L.A. Local’s background actors committee.
Not everyone who works background has a horror story, but almost everyone knows someone who does. “Sexual harassment was part of the job,” said a background actor who asked not to be identified for fear that she would be blackballed for speaking out. “I’ve had a lot of experiences with that, from the moment I entered the industry. I know at least seven or eight girls who have horror stories. Some have left the industry because of it.
“I’ve worked full time on 10 different TV shows as a stand-in and background on probably 300 movies and TV shows,” she told Deadline, estimating that sexual harassment “crops up on one-in-three shows. Sometime it’s the crew, sometime the principal actors, and sometimes it’s other backgrounds. It’s so frequent that you learn to expect it. A director of photography asked me to sleep with him and his wife. A major producer asked me if I liked to slap men in bed.”
She recalled being sexually assaulted by a crew member while working as a stand-in on a hit network show a few years ago. “He sexually abused me backstage while they were filming a scene,” she said. “He literally put his genitalia into my mouth. And when the director yelled ‘Cut!’ and called for the second team, I got away from him and went right back on set to do my stand-in.”
She said that she was too afraid of losing her job to complain.
All of this, the union says, “is against our contract and is unlawful, and we take swift and serious action to address this conduct when we become aware of it. Sexual harassment and assault are a plague on our industry and we are doing everything we can to stop it for all performers.”
To that end, SAG-AFTRA has negotiated stronger provisions into its contracts with the major studios and networks that provide members with significant rights when they’re involved in intimate and highly exposed scenes, established standards and protocols for intimacy coordinators, developed a code of conduct to prevent harassment and assault in the industry and put a stop to improper private meetings in hotel rooms and personal residences.
SAG-AFTRA Launches Sexual Harassment Reporting Site & New Standards For Intimacy Coordinators
And many of those interviewed for this story say that conditions have improved in recent years. “During this challenging time, the union has been doing even more work on our behalf,” said Avis Boone, chair of the New York Local’s background advisory committee. “One of the really amazing achievements has been SAG-AFTRA’s development of the Safe Place member-reporting app, which allows us to report harassment and assault right from the set – even anonymously, if we choose.”
“We do background because we love the work,” said Vincent Amaya, who serves on the union’s national background actors committee. “Many of us are regulars on a show or several shows and are able to make a decent living off of only doing work as a background actor. Acting and background acting aren’t easy professions, but as a member of SAG-AFTRA, I know my union is here for me. From negotiating the back-to-work contract, to defending our claims when we aren’t paid properly, and even having on-site reps to check on everyone, including background actors and stand-ins to make sure everything is going smoothly, are just some of the ways the union protects background actors.”
Even so, the union acknowledged in October that “unfortunately, there is still much to do and sexual harassment remains an all-too-common occurrence.”
An anonymous extra told the Hollywood Commission that “background actors are the lowest on the totem pole of power. We are routinely treated as animals with disrespect and subhuman conditions,” adding that complaints are sometimes met with: “Well, that’s just how it is. If you don’t like it, get a better job.”
“In general, background employees are not talked to like they are people,” said another. “They’re often treated like props.”
Non-union background actors can join the union if they get three days of union-covered work, accompanied by three vouchers that prove they worked on union shows. “The system was set up during the era of the casting couch, but those days should be over,” said Julia Schell, an actress and background performer in New York. “There should be a better way for background to become members. There’s too many variables. It’s too easy to be exploited. Weird things happen.”
Inequity is baked into the union’s film and television contract with management’s Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which only applies to union extras employed in seven “zones” in and around Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Hawaii. In those zones, the minimum salary is $178 a day for general background actors, plus employer contributions of 19.5% to the union’s pension and health plan. On July 1, they’re scheduled to get a $4-a-day pay raise.
But even in those seven zones, producers signed to the union’s contract can hire non-union extras after a set number of union extras are hired. On feature films shot in New York, non-union extras can be hired after 85 union extras are employed, and all stand-ins must be union. On TV shows shot there, non-union extras can be hired after 25 union background actors have been hire, and all stand-ins must be union as well.
But in the other six zones, the number of union background actors is capped at 57 plus one stand-in for feature films, and 21 general extras plus three stand-ins for television shows, though that will be going up to 22 on July 1. After those caps are reached, producers can hire all non-union extras and stand-ins, who substitute for cast members during rehearsals for blocking and lighting. On films and TV shows, they minimum rate for union stand-ins is $209 a day and is going up to $214 on July 1.
For films and TV shows based in New York, the terms of the contract apply to all work within a radius of 300 miles from the center of Columbus Circle in New York City. That includes Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
But in Los Angeles, the studio zone is only a 75-mile radius from the intersection of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards but also includes the John Wayne Airport in Orange County. In San Francisco, it’s a 25-mile radius from Market and Powell streets; in Sacramento, it’s a 25-mile radius from Sunrise Boulevard and Highway 50; in Las Vegas, it’s only a 15-mile radius from the Clark County Courthouse; in San Diego, it’s everything shot within the city limits; and in Hawaii, it’s throughout the entire state.
Outside of those zones, producers don’t have to hire any union extras at all, which is why the hundreds of films and TV shows shot in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and most everywhere else employ non-union background performers almost exclusively. They can hire union extras if they want to, but very few do. Major stars sometimes arrange to have their stand-ins working with them under a union contract no matter where a show is filmed, but it’s rare outside the zones.
This hodgepodge of SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction over background performers is a holdover from 1992, when the Screen Actors Guild absorbed the crumbling jurisdiction of the failed Screen Extras Guild. SEG’s corrupt leader, H. O’Neil Shanks, had been caught on camera by 60 Minutes stealing typewriters and other supplies from his guild’s office and loading them into the trunk of his car.
SAG long had covered extras in New York and Los Angeles but gave up its jurisdiction over extras in L.A. in 1945, when a group of extras formed SEG. By the 1980s, however, the 6,700-member SEG was failing, having lost all but a few of the major companies as signatories to its contract. After two attempts to merge SAG and SEG were rejected by SAG’s members, SAG decided to reassert its jurisdiction over extras here, or face the prospect that all extra jobs in Hollywood would be non-union.
The AMPTP, however, was dead set against SAG taking over the jurisdiction in L.A. and filed an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit to stop it. When that failed, the AMPTP worked out an agreement with SAG that would allow it to take over SEG’s jurisdiction, but any expansion of the number of “zones” would be a non-mandatory subject of bargaining, meaning that it would be outside the scope of the contract. Under federal labor law, a recognition clause that defines a bargaining unit is not a mandatory subject of bargaining. And that’s why the hundreds of shows that shoot in Georgia or everywhere else outside the seven zones are allowed to hire all non-union extras, some for as little as minimum wage.
Thus, even if it wanted to expand the number of zones, SAG-AFTRA might be prevented from doing so at the bargaining table, or going on strike to achieve it. Nothing, however, prevents the union from attempting to organize background performers anywhere in the country or to become their bargaining representative on a production-by-production basis, or even on a company-by-company basis in areas outside the seven zones.
In a statement, the union said:
“SAG-AFTRA and its predecessor unions have fought hard to increase pay and improve coverage numbers for background actors in every cycle of bargaining since taking on the jurisdiction, driving the West Coast coverage numbers up and significantly improving pay and conditions. Organizing background actors outside the current zones through a traditional process faces unique challenges because of the freelance nature of employment in this Industry.
“Even if we did organize background actors through a traditional process outside the zones, those background actors would become their own bargaining unit and would therefore have to negotiate a standalone contract with the AMPTP, or with individual companies or productions. We could not strike to help those background actors in what would become a separate negotiation where the background actors would have to rely upon their own inherent leverage in order to get a deal.
“The Screen Extras Guild collapsed under the weight and lack of real leverage for this group. When that organization dissolved, SAG knowingly took on that burden and has made significant progress in protecting and elevating background performers’ status. Had SAG not taken over jurisdiction, all background work on the West Coast would be non-union.
“The history of SEG shows that without the ability for principal actors to stand behind and use their leverage for background actors, the ability of a standalone background unit to bargain its own agreements is extremely limited, if not nil.
“Notwithstanding all of that, we have an ongoing initiative to investigate the feasibility of separately organizing background actors outside the zones.”
Ron Ostrow, who chairs SAG-AFTRA’s national and L.A. Local background actors committees, noted that in exchange for recognition by the AMPTP back in 1992, SAG agreed to slash its base pay for extras from $99 a day to just $65, while AFTRA’s rate plummeted from $115 a day to $65, although AFTRA was able to hold onto its national jurisdiction over background players under what is now called the Network Code.
Prior to SAG’s merger with AFTRA in 2012, data collected by the SAG Pension and Health Plans showed that the number of SAG members who qualified for SAG health benefits based on their earnings from extra work alone plummeted by more than 67%, down from 2,782 members in 2003 to only 905 in 2011. Those are the last years for which this data has been made available to the public.
The numbers began their precipitous plunge in 2004, when the SAG Pension and Health Plans raised the earnings needed to qualify for basic health coverage from $7,500 a year to $11,000. They plunged again in 2011 when the earnings requirement was raised to $14,800 – nearly double what it had been only eight years earlier. In 2004, the number of extras who qualified for SAG health benefits based on their earnings as extras alone fell by 33%, an indication that increases in eligibility hurts the lowest earners the most. The numbers slid again in 2005, then stabilized for the next two years. The slide resumed in 2008, when AFTRA started signing more TV producers to its contract, touching off a bitter feud that only ended when the two unions merged.
Facing staggering deficits, the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan raised premiums and earnings thresholds for coverage on January 1, 2021, which could make it harder, once again, for background actors to qualify for health benefits.
SAG-AFTRA, however, noted that even with the recent increase in the Health Plan’s minimum earnings threshold, “It’s still one of the best deals in town,” pointing out that the WGA minimum for health coverage is $40,854, while the DGA’s is $35,875 for its lower tier plan and $116,000 for its higher tier plan.
“Most members earning coverage through background work are highly subsidized by the other participants,” SAG-AFTRA said. “Many of the challenges faced by the Plan are the result of subsidizing participants with earnings that do not actually cover their costs to the Plan. It deserves emphasis that our lower thresholds are the result of the union’s trustees fighting to keep that number as low as they responsibly could in order to maximize the ability of all members to qualify even in the face of runaway healthcare inflation. In the end, economics and Covid came for us all, and we have to keep the plan afloat.”
In 2019, SAG-AFTRA said that “with the explosion of new production on a variety of platforms, background actors are in demand, and earnings are up.” The union also said its leaders “have also made the working conditions of background performers a priority.”
That spring, the union’s president, Gabrielle Carteris, made a point of visiting Central Casting, the industry’s largest employment facilitator of background performers, to hear directly from members about their on-set experiences. “Background performers are our fellow actors, our fellow members and so critical to all of our shared success,” she said after the visit. “We perform together, and we fight for our protections and fair wages together – as one union.”
Later that year, the union hosted a resource fair for background performers, and in October, Carteris and national executive director David White hosted a podcast about background issues that featured Avis Boone and Linda Harcharic, who serves on national and L.A. Local background actors committees.
Ostrow, the chair of the national and L.A. Local background committees, noted that many SAG-AFTRA members work as background for a living, but many others work background if they need a few extra dollars to qualify for pension and health coverage. “If you’re a journeyman actor and need a day of background to get your insurance, would you take it?” he asked. “People will cobble work together if they can, but it’s only in the zones. In Georgia, without union work, you have less chance of making benefits.”
Background performers on Netflix’s Stranger Things, which is shooting in Atlanta, are paid as little as $168 for a 12-hour day, which comes to $12.50 an hour, with no time-and-a-half overtime pay and no benefits, though a free haircut is included. According to a recent casting notice for the show, extras “must be willing to let production cut and style your hair however necessary to achieve the ’80s look for the show. If you are not 100% willing to let them do whatever is needed, you cannot work on Stranger Things.”
Georgia’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, plus overtime after 40 hours a week. Day workers, however, get no overtime pay after eight hours.
A casting notice for HBO’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is filming in NYC, also is looking for non-union extras – after its union allotment has been filled – to work for $165 a day for 10 hours. That comes to little more than the city’s $15-an-hour minimum wage, more than double Georgia’s.
Casting calls for numerous non-union films and music videos are seeking extras to work for “no pay” at all, which is a violation of state and federal minimum wage laws. Union-covered jobs on low-budget music videos, meanwhile, can pay as little as 10% above minimum wage, which differs from state to state.
Unlike SAG-AFTRA’s film and TV contract, its Network Code, which is a holdover from before the 2012 merger of SAG and AFTRA, has no zones or caps on the number of union extras that must be hired before non-union extras can be employed on most shows covered by the contract. On these shows — which include daytime serials, Saturday morning kids’ shows, dramatic programs made for first-run syndication and all network dramas shown in non-primetime hours — all background actors are guaranteed the protection of SAG-AFTRA rates and conditions and are covered regardless of where they work in the U.S.
But the Network Code, also known as “The Front of the Book,” contains a much lower base pay rate for general extras – currently set at $122 a day for eight hours, with time-and-a-half pay after that, which reflects the lower budgets for this type of programming.
Expanding the zones in the film and TV contract would go a long way toward creating pay equity for extras, but it’s not a mandatory subject of bargaining, meaning that the union can’t strike over it, because the contract does not extend beyond the zones. The AMPTP, however, could voluntarily expand the zones, and even include new zones, as it has before. “In 1995, we extended the Las Vegas zone to include the Strip, and in 1998, it was extended to include the airport and UNLV, and we added Sacramento as a zone through negotiations,” Ostrow noted.
Just as the New York zone has a 300-mile radius, the L.A. zone could be expanded, but the union might have to give up something for it. “We can discuss expanding the zone from L.A. to Sacramento,” Ostrow said, “and they’d have to talk to us, but not for Georgia.”
And not in New Mexico either, where Netflix is boosting its presence in the state by expanding its ABQ Studios in Albuquerque and committing to an additional $1 billion in production spending. SAG-AFTRA negotiated its first-ever direct deal with Netflix in July 2019, which provides for union coverage of union extras employed in the seven zones, but New Mexico is not in one of the zones, so shows shot there can hire all non-union background performers.
“There’s going to be thousands of non-union extra jobs in New Mexico because we didn’t negotiate the coverage,” Ostrow said. “It was inexplicable. We squandered a golden opportunity to establish our jurisdiction in a non-covered area, because this was a brand-new agreement and not subject to a non-mandatory subject of bargaining.”
SAG-AFTRA said that Netflix negotiation “had no obligation to enter into that negotiation with us at all, so in effect every subject was non-mandatory as a practical matter, and there was no chance of Netflix agreeing to coverage outside the existing zones. The Netflix deal delivered tremendous, demonstrable gains for members across multiple categories.”
“I personally don’t have any stories of being abused,” Ostrow said. “I have been on shows where the leads have gone out of their way to make sure that backgrounds are appreciated. I’ve also been on sets where the producer has said that if anyone mistreats anyone, they’re gone. And I’ve been on other sets where it’s clear that they just don’t care. From my perspective, it’s rare that I’ve been treated terribly. The biggest problem is that they don’t pay attention to our contract. We have to file claims. Getting them to comply with the contract is the biggest problem, even down to getting us paid on time. Things like that are very frustrating.”
Background actor Richard Hadfield said that some local SAG-AFTRA leaders outside the seven zones are happy to maintain the status quo, arguing that paying union wages to extras would drive productions away. “They’re always trying to keep background out,” he said. “They say shows won’t come there if they have to have union background actors. Georgia spent $860 million in tax incentives in 2019, but they’re giving background workers minimum wage.”
Others argue that the lack of national coverage for background is contributing to runaway production from Los Angeles and New York.
Harcharic says that these arguments don’t hold water because “background actor costs comprise less than 2% of a production’s budget.”
“Leadership in some locals with no TV/theatrical background coverage fear that the cost of union background coverage would deter productions from shooting in their locals,” she said, “but it is a proven fact that productions go where the tax incentives are – not where the cost of background coverage is a few dollars less.”
Harcharic, who took part with Carteris and White in the union’s 2019 podcast about background actors, told Deadline that the union’s background zones only cover “6% of the geographical area of the country, whereas other performers are covered in 100% of the geographical area of the country. We are the only work category within this union that is not covered wall-to-wall across the nation. Every other work category is covered no matter where they work on a union production. Background actors pay the same initiation fees, the same base dues and the same percentage of work dues as every other performer, but we’re not allotted the same work opportunities.”
Low pay and less job coverage under the union’s contracts, she said, means that background actors also have less chance of reaching the qualifying levels of $25,950 in earnings or 100 days of work for health insurance, and $20,000 in earnings for a SAG Pension credit and $15,000 for an AFTRA Retirement credit, “resulting in less of a chance of having a safety net now and when they retire.”
Another example of regional inequity, she said, is that union film and TV background actors in the New York zone are paid night premiums – an extra 10% of their hourly rate from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m., and an additional 20% from 1-6 a.m., but background actors in other zones do not receive this pay.
Under the union’s 2018 contract with Telemundo, there’s no coverage for background actors. “We weren’t represented in the negotiations for this contract, or on the Netflix contract either,” Harcharic said. “We need a background representative on each contract negotiating committee for each contract under which we work.”
SAG-AFTRA said that “during the Telemundo organizing campaign, background performers working for Telemundo at the time clearly indicated to SAG-AFTRA organizers that they did not wish to be part of the campaign or the unit, despite overwhelming support from principal performers for representation by SAG-AFTRA. In deference to the wishes of the Telemundo background performer community at the time, SAG-AFTRA went forward with a representation election for principal performers only.”
Background performers are paid considerably more under the union’s commercials contract, but Harcharic noted that they’re “only covered in limited numbers under the SAG-AFTRA Commercials contract in one-third of the U.S., whereas all other performers are covered wall-to-wall across the U.S.”
In 2009 SAG and AFTRA were able to establish a new zone in Louisiana under the commercials after SAG opened a new branch there. SAG-AFTRA said that the coverage in Louisiana under the commercials contract “is a result of language in that contract that ties the existence of zones to cities where we have offices. That language does not exist in our other contracts.”
Many leaders of the background community believe that at the very least they deserve a guaranteed seat on the union’s national board of directors – a position staked out by Membership First, the union’s out-of-power faction, in its platform for the upcoming SAG-AFTRA elections. “Background actors are a fundamental constituency group within SAG-AFTRA contributing to the financial foundation of our union,” the platform says. “However, unlike dancers, actors, singers/recording artists, and broadcasters, they do not have a guaranteed voice in the national board room. Without this, background actors have struggled to have their basic needs met. They are on an unequal footing with the rest of the membership and cannot even weigh in on matters that directly affect their lives and livelihoods.” Stunt performers don’t have a guaranteed seat on the national board either.
SAG-AFTRA says that in 2018, “at the request of the Los Angeles Local board and as approved by the National Board, SAG-AFTRA surveyed the more than 65,000 members of the Los Angeles local and asked whether members would choose the option of a background actor membership category if one were established. More than 3,700 members responded to the survey. Of those who responded, more than 90% indicated they would not be interested in or choose such a category, preferring instead to retain the current actor/performer category that covers both principals and background together.”
“Keeping in mind the challenges faced by background performers in achieving eligibility for health benefits during the pandemic,” SAG-AFTRA said that during last year’s industry-wide negotiations for return-to-work protocols, it had “secured the support of all industry unions and held the line with the AMPTP to ensure that testing stipends for background performers would count for eligibility for health coverage – the only category of workers in the entire industry for which that is the case.”
“It meant so much to me that SAG-AFTRA stood by us background performers and made sure that our Covid testing stipends would count for health eligibility even though that wasn’t the case for any other workers in the industry,” said Mary Heiss, a member of the national background actors committee.
Many of Hollywood’s top stars started their acting careers as background performers, including Brad Pitt on Less Than Zero, George Clooney (Centennial), Clint Eastwood (Revenge of the Creature), Sylvester Stallone (Bananas), Renée Zellweger (Dazed and Confused), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Field of Dreams), Kristen Stewart (The Thirteenth Year) and Bruce Willis (The Verdict). Look back farther, and you’ll find the likes of Clark Gable (The Merry Widow), John Wayne (Brown of Harvard) and Marilyn Monroe (Green Grass of Wyoming).
Many other extras, like my late father Larry Robb, never made it big, but he loved working background on movies including The Robe and Viva Las Vegas. He even got to meet to Elvis.
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