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Back at the negotiating table

Health plan looms as thesps, ad biz sked talks

Bargaining between actors and the ad industry has been set to start Sept. 23, five weeks prior to expiration of the current three-year contract and three years after a six-month strike.

Negotiations will take place in Gotham, with the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists representing about 140,000 thesps. The ad industry will be repped by the Assn. of Natl. Advertisers and the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies.

“We look forward to productive bargaining and share the desire to reach a mutually acceptable agreement as early as possible,” the groups said in a joint statement issued Thursday.

Although the statement did not address it, the selection of Sept. 23 as the start date means that talks will take place just as SAG concludes its round of elections for national president, VP and one-third of its national board seats. Guild deputy national exec director Pamm Fair said the selection of the same date for both was coincidental.

The six-month strike of 2000 has emerged as a major issue in the campaign. Supporters of SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert have complained the work stoppage lasted too long and caused a subsequent slowdown in 2001; guild treasurer Kent McCord, who is challenging Gilbert, has accused her of laxness in following through on the use of $1 million per year to create a monitoring system for ads; presidential candidate Gordon Drake, who served as national strike coordinator, has attempted to position himself as independent of the two factions.

With Gilbert’s supporters dominating the SAG board, the unions have taken a low-key tack to the upcoming negotiations and not disclosed any specifics of their proposals. That approach contrasts sharply with 2000, when both sides publicly released their initial proposals and the unions staged several rallies during negotiations, including a raucous event at the Hollywood Palladium that drew 1,500 members.

But union insiders have said SAG and AFTRA negotiators are seeking relatively modest hikes in minimums plus a boost in the producer contributions to their health and retirement funds — currently at 13%.

Staying in the pink

Health care has emerged this year as a key issue for showbizzers. One signal came earlier this year when Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees West Coast members ratified a three-year deal that increased producers’ hourly contributions to the pension and health plans for the first time in 20 years and maintained the qualification and benefit structure of the health plan.

While showbiz health plans used to represent an attainable bit of security for union members toiling in the trenches, soaring costs have forced all plans to tighten eligibility and cut benefits, leaving many members struggling to meet the new cutoffs.

SAG instituted monthly premiums ($50 for Plan I, $65 for Plan II) at the start of the year. Qualification for Plan I, which had required $15,000 in annual earnings, jumped to $20,000 in 2003 and will rise each subsequent year to $30,100 in 2007; eligibility for Plan II, which had a $7,500 income threshold, rose to $9,000 in 2003 and will require either $15,050 in income or 82 days of employment by 2007.

After SAG’s plan instituted premiums in January, the number of eligible participants fell by more than 30% — with 10,000 opting out of coverage entirely.

On July 1, AFTRA’s health plan participants had to pay premiums for the first time of $250 per quarter, and the annual earnings requirement jumped from $7,500 to $10,000.

“Most actors are always calculating how much more they’ll need to earn in order to meet the threshold and qualify by the end of each quarter,” says SAG member Eugene Feldman, who works mainly as an attorney. “I fell short by about $1,000 for the past 12 months when the eligibility went up. I did a fair amount of work in July such as playing a homeless guy on ’10-8,’ so I think I’ll qualify by the end of this quarter.”

Thesps always keep a running count as to how close they are to making the minimums in earnings and credits to continue their insurance coverage. SAG member Antony Acker is relieved that he’ll just make enough to hit $9,000 in earnings — enough to qualify for the guild’s lower-cost plan.

“It’s tight for everyone right now even though the premiums are only about $600 a year,” the 59-year-old Acker said. “I think I’ll be OK. Plus I have my VA benefits to fall back on. The hard part is that I may not earn my 10th pension credit, since the minimum annual earnings required has jumped from $10,000 to $15,000. But I remind myself that compared to some performers, I’m fortunate — we all sort of have a feeling of biting the bullet on this.”

Other union plans have been tightening the belt as well:

  • Actors’ Equity boosted the required amount of employment for insurance from 10 to 12 weeks over a 12-month period and raised the major deductible from $250 to $350 per person; as of Oct. 1, the qualification period will go to 20 weeks per 12-month period.

  • The Writers Guild of America West plan hiked the eligibility requirement for annual earnings by 51% to $28,833 from $19,125. The new requirement, effective July 1, equals the minimum pay for a one-hour network primetime story and teleplay; old figure was the minimum for a half-hour network primetime story and teleplay.

  • The Directors Guild of America boosted the deductible for a family from $600 to $900; on Oct. 1, the plan will start charging the first-ever premium for dependents, set at $600 annually; on Jan. 1, it will boost the minimum earnings to qualify for health coverage from $27,900 to $28,700.

The most radical step was taken quietly just a few weeks ago when the retirement plan for AFTRA asked the IRS for an additional decade beyond the current 15 years to improve the plan’s hobbled finances.

As of last Nov. 30, the market value of plan assets was $1.4 billion, about $280 million short of the $1.68 billion value of vested benefits; the plan had already slashed its benefit accrual rate from 3% to 2% and eliminated the minimum guaranteed monthly pension for members who satisfied requirements for a regular annuity.