On March 19, SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris notified the union’s 160,000 members that the national headquarters in Los Angeles was closed to members, with the staff working remotely to minimize risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
Since then, about 60 SAG-AFTRA staff members of the performers union have continued to show up daily to the headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard to keep residual checks going out to members during the pandemic. They are processing about 146,000 checks per week, a rate of about 8 million checks on an annualized basis.
It’s a job that’s performed partly by massive equipment — machines that were originally nicknamed Boris and Natasha after the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” characters — which open and scan the residuals checks, then insert them into envelopes for remailing.
Valery Kotik, national director of residuals processing, trusts and estates, told Variety that the requirements of getting that many checks physically into the mail makes it impossible for staff to perform the tasks remotely.
“Working here is a little lonely,” Kotik said. “We are practicing social distancing so the team is spread over two floors. We are taking the precautions very seriously so everyone is wearing masks and gloves.”
The executive emphasized that he’s intensely proud of those who show up every day to get the checks processed at a time when the funds are badly needed by the non-star rank-and-file members.
“The employees have to be empathetic with the members,” Kotik said. “I could not be happier with the response of the employees. They are trying really hard.”
The first residuals for members of the Screen Actors Guild came in 1952, when it worked out a deal for TV reruns. It then expanded the payments in 1960 when it obtained the first residuals on feature films sold to TV, following a seven-week strike that halted eight major productions, including Elizabeth Taylor’s “Butterfield 8” and Jack Lemmon’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army.” Studios agreed to pay residuals for movies produced after the date of the agreement, and paid $2.25 million to start the pension and health fund as compensation for movies produced before 1960.
SAG merged with AFTRA in 2012. SAG-AFTRA’s contracts currently provide that once a residual is generated, the employers have 60 days to pay the performers.
“Once we get the funds, we try to get the money to the members as quickly as possible,” Kotik said.
SAG-AFTRA announced a year ago that it had launched an automated residual payment process that became available to members as of May 1. The performers union first announced in 2017 that it had entered into a multiyear agreement with Exactuals, a Los Angeles-based payments software company, to deliver residual payments through direct deposit.
Kotik said that about 19,000 members — about 12% of the membership — have signed up for the automated residuals payments.
“We process about 27,000 of those each week,” he said. “We are pleased with the response. Direct deposit is more convenient, especially now.”