In order to stop the spread of coronavirus, millions of Americans are following the advice, or orders, of public health authorities and staying home. We don’t know how long this crisis will last, but we know that if we stay home and slow the spread of the virus, we can avert the worst outcomes that would swamp our hospital system completely and result in significant death tolls.
These sweeping disruptions have sent shockwaves throughout the economy, and many industries have ground to a standstill. While some people can still work from home, many others are facing layoffs, sometimes from jobs that looked stable and secure just a few weeks ago. Most of those laid off will be eligible for unemployment benefits that are created for exactly this purpose, and which are being augmented by the federal government in response to the crisis.
But for others, like freelancers, independent contractors, tipped workers and those in the gig economy, these new provisions may offer little help since these workers don’t qualify for unemployment or paid leave protections typically afforded to employees of traditional companies or small businesses.
One industry that’s near to my heart — and significantly impacted — is entertainment. And while that might bring to mind highly-paid movie stars, the reality is that the vast majority in the industry are working class, and they’re in jobs that make them ineligible for some traditional benefits.
Beyond those few regularly seen on screen are many dozens or hundreds of other workers. They operate the cameras, build the sets, create the lighting and write the scripts. They provide security for live audiences, assist the producers, market the show and ensure distribution. And yes, they also act, appear as extras, scout the locations, provide the makeup, and so much more.
The movies, shows and streaming content created by entertainment professionals are being consumed by Americans more than ever. Television ratings are at a recent high, and streaming services are surging. But despite the increased demand, those Americans working behind the camera and the curtain are hurting.
In California, New York, Georgia and other entertainment hot zones, freelance and contract workers are dealing with productions that are postponed, slowed or canceled altogether. This is an industry in crisis.
The unique freelance nature of film, television and theater jobs means that a large number of the professionals who make these productions possible work only sporadically — often with extended periods between paying jobs — and count on income from each project to make ends meet. On top of that, many of these workers supplement their income with second jobs in industries like service and hospitality, which are also facing drastic cutbacks. As a result, many of them can’t qualify for traditional unemployment benefits or paid emergency leave, and are unable to cover their basic expenses due to lost work.
Many of these workers have arranged, contracted for and planned on jobs on a film, television show, streaming program, commercial, theatrical or other live production that has been canceled or postponed as a result of coronavirus. However, these union workers are not adequately protected by rules designed for traditional single-employer relationships, or even consistent multi-employer work, as in industries like construction.
Here’s how Congress can — and indeed, must — help:
Congress has already passed bipartisan legislation to help protect the health and financial security of families across the country as we confront this unprecedented challenge. But we will need to pass a much larger relief package, and do so soon, including direct payments to Americans to help them weather this storm.
Entertainment workers must not be left behind. Due to the unique, sporadic nature of work in their industry, benefits like unemployment insurance should be expanded to adequately cover those contract workers and freelancers who work in the entertainment industry.
One solution is to allow these workers to obtain unemployment benefits based on verifiable anticipated earnings for a current or future contract that was canceled or postponed, rather than based on prior wage history. This week, along with over a dozen other members of Congress, I urged congressional leadership to adopt this model for future legislation addressing the health and economic impacts of coronavirus.