Assistants Unite at #PayUpHollywood Town Hall: ‘The Hollywood Chain Is Broken’

PayUpHollywood assistants town hall
CNT Productions

On top of anxiety, financial insecurity, brutal hours and barely minimum wages, some Hollywood support staff have to contend with other horrors in the workplace. In fact, 72 assistants reported having had an object thrown at them by their boss or supervisor at work, according to a #PayUpHollywood survey of about 1,100 assistants that was shared at a cathartic town hall on Sunday. (The most common object hurled at assistants: a stapler.)

Around 120 entertainment industry support staff gathered to discuss the issue of low pay at the first meeting organized by #PayUpHollywood, the hashtag-turned-movement that advocates for bosses in the biz to pay their assistants a living wage. Several assistants present shared experiences of asking their superiors for a raise, but being “put in their place” and labeled “ungrateful. Others brought up issues of being forced to do work above their pay grade in order to “prove themselves,” only for there to be “no carrot at the end of the stick.”

“The Hollywood chain is broken,” said one assistant. “We’re hearing stories of people who are repeating staff writer level three or four times…that then trickles down to us.”

The town hall began with a panel of speakers, including: screenwriter John August, who initiated the recent conversation around assistant pay when the issue was brought up on the “Scriptnotes” podcast which he co-hosts; Liz Alper, who created the hashtag #PayUpHollywood; Jamarah Hayner, a consultant brought on to work with #PayUpHollywood; and Young Entertainment Activists founder and CEO Allison Begalman.

While the full findings of the #PayUpHollywood survey will not be published for another week, Alper shared a few key patterns emerging from the responses thus far.

“How long do you have to pay your dues?” asked Alper at the event, noting that 47% of the 1,100 surveyed support staffers have been assistants for three or more years, while 21% have been assistants for more than five years. And over two-thirds — 67.17% of assistants — currently or previously have had to take on an additional job in order to survive.

“That’s what we’re talking about when we say pay your dues,” she said. “[As an industry] we’re no longer saying, ‘Take the low paycheck.’ We’re saying ‘Figure out how, on top of your 60-hour workweek, you can work a second job, so you can make that rent, so you can afford to go out and see those movies your bosses want or require you to go see, so you can purchase that 16th streaming subscription that is now required to keep in the loop with all that programming.”

Here are some of the other findings from the survey that Alper shared at he event:

  • Of the 1,100 surveyed, 88.67% reported spending more than 30% of their monthly income on housing.
  • 62.76% reported making less than $50k, before taxes.
  • 91.54% reported their current job has lead to increased feelings of anxiety.

A key concern on the minds of many of the assistants present was how to start that first conversation about pay with your boss. One assistant shared a story of a recent meeting that didn’t go so well.

“When #PayUpHollywod came up, I brought my boss the articles the day after,” said the assistant. “I tried to lay it out as: L.A. is expensive, these are articles that tell exactly how much we should be making in order to survive and it’s hard for me to make rent… He proceeded to tell me how he would have gone about it and that I had asked for raise too soon. He basically put me in my place and told me I was ungrateful. A lot of offices have that environment of ‘You’re ungrateful, you’re not paying your dues.'”

One key piece of advice for assistants that arose from the town hall? “Document everything,” and keep a record not only of their hours and the tasks they’re being asked to perform that exceed their job description, but also of inappropriate behavior targeted at them.

One former assistant, now a script coordinator, shared a story of how she was “screamed at a lot and terribly abused” by a former employer. She documented every single time this occurred, before taking the substantial evidence to human resources.

“I wasn’t looking for anything except to make sure this human never supervised people like me again, and I’m happy to report it’s never happened again. They did a full investigation and thanks to my very detailed notes, this person was investigated and found to have done the things that I reported, and they have never been a showrunner again,” she said.

When one assistant stepped up to the mic and said he wanted to discuss the degree to which assistants are expected to work “above their pay grade,” an audible groan of empathy rose from the room.

Whether it’s running personal errands all over town, childcare, or taking an employer’s Tesla to the car wash, it’s clear that assistants in the biz are being asked to perform tasks well outside what they were hired, and are being paid, to do.

“I have been asked to write outlines which have been turned into the studio for no credit and no money,” said one writer’s room assistant. “Shows will overload on assistants meaning you have a cabal of support staff members who are being treated like cheaper staff writers under the theory that we are proving ourselves for opportunities which never even go to us.”

Two representatives from the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA), which will be helping #PayUpHollywood with labor cases, were present to give legal advice and educate attendees on what constitutes retaliation by their employers, and how they have a legal defense against it.

Outlining the strategy for tackling some of these issues going forward, Alper said #PayUpHollywood intends to organize several more town halls to cover issues such as work conditions at talent agencies and studios, unionization, and freelancer laws.

“There are so many practices in Los Angeles right now that are a violation in labor laws. People are aware of it, and they’re just saying this is how it’s always been,” Alper said. “It’s MeToo, you cannot harass women, you cannot sexually assault a person and expect to get away with it, so you cannot put people through work abuses and labor law violations and expect to get away with it. We’re going to change the culture…it’s going to take a while, but we’re going to keep working at it until we get there.”