‘Rachael Ray’ Crew Demands Pay After Being Cut Loose During Coronavirus Pandemic (EXCLUSIVE)

rachael ray
CBS Television Distribution

“The Rachael Ray Show” long had a reputation as a model for how to treat a crew. Veterans of the syndicated daytime talker praise the workplace culture that endured over its first 14 seasons. Even as signs of belt tightening began to creep in a few years ago, those on set appreciated the show’s inclusiveness, the parties that would occasionally be thrown for crew members and the feeling that they were always being treated with respect.

Now, in the middle of a global pandemic, more than 20 crew are being cut loose without warning and without pay.

The relationship between the show and the folks who make it began to shift in March, when the latter were informed that Ray would, in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19, shoot the remainder of the 2019-20 season remotely from her house in upstate New York without on-site assistance from anyone beside her husband — and that displaced crew members would not be paid for the five scheduled shoot days remaining in the season. That move prompted a dispute by IATSE, which claimed that its contract with the show covering 18 union camera operators, audio engineers and other technical crew requires producers to pay those furloughed workers for all remote shoot days that had originally been planned for the studio.

Months later, the crew was informed that “The Rachael Ray Show” would return to its Manhattan studio in November. But now producers have changed course, announcing that Ray will continue to shoot remotely through the remainder of the season. Negotiations between producers and IATSE on a settlement have thus far led nowhere. That standoff is now headed for arbitration, leaving open the likelihood that the 18 furloughed IATSE members and a handful of additional non-union crew won’t be paid for roughly two-thirds of their scheduled workdays this season.

“When COVID-19 forced our studio production to shut down in March, we started shooting ‘Rachael Ray’ at Rachael’s home out of necessity,” a spokesperson for CBS Television Distribution, which produces the show with Harpo Studios and Discovery Productions, told Variety. “As we moved into fall, with COVID cases increasing, we made the difficult decision to continue to shoot the show from Rachael’s home for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this new format has affected some valued studio crew, including IATSE members. CBS Television Distribution has continued to pay those affected through September and October, and we have reached out to IATSE to discuss mitigation efforts going forward.”

Spokespersons for Ray and IATSE did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

More than nine hours after Variety published this story, Ray posted a statement on Twitter that read, “There’s news in the media today that is disturbing to me, and I do not think is accurate. My partners at CBS Television Distribution are currently in an active conversation about how to provide for our show’s format change after November 1st. It has been my utmost priority that we keep the full contribution to their healthcare plan during this pandemic. I care about my colleagues as family, and as we approach the holidays, we want to keep everyone safe. While everyone is continuing to be paid through October, we will continue to work this out.”

”Rachael Ray” isn’t the only talk show to be criticized during the pandemic for leaving crewmembers in the lurch. In April, Variety reported that “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” employees were left wondering for weeks about their working hours and pay, and then told to expect a 60% reduction in pay. The crew also grew incensed when they learned that an outside, non-union tech company was brought in to help DeGeneres tape remotely from her home.

“The Rachael Ray Show” has been on a season-to-season renewal cycle for several years. In July, crew received news of a renewal and a schedule for a full season of shoot days, indicating that Ray, like most other talk-show hosts, planned to be back in her studio for 2020-21.

Then in August, executive in charge of production Kevin Moriarty held a video conference with crew members to inform them that Ray had decided not to return to the studio so soon. Instead, episodes for Season 15 would begin shooting remotely in September, with a return to the studio slated for November. During September and October remote production, crew would be paid for a full complement of 10-hour shoot days. Three crew members who spoke with Moriarty said that he described the crew in those phone calls as being “like a family,” and emphasized the need for members of that family to take care of each other during the pandemic.

News that crew would be paid for shooting in September and October and that Ray would in November return to set was welcome for IATSE members, who need to rack up 400 hours of work every six months to qualify for health insurance. The Season 15 schedule promised 59 10-hour shoot days.

But on Oct. 15, Moriarty again reached out to crew members, this time to inform them that Ray had decided to continue shooting from her home for the remainder of the season — and that technical crew unable to do their jobs remotely would not be paid for the 39 remaining scheduled shoot days.

The move was a blow to those who had counted on a full season of work. For many of its freelance crew, “The Rachael Ray Show” is a cornerstone, providing the bulk of their work hours in a year, and preventing them from doing other series work. For most, additional work hours come in the form of live television events and specials — the kind that have been disrupted by the pandemic. With the 2020-21 season already well under way, most of Ray’s displaced crew will likely have difficulty finding work on another show.

Sources on both sides of talks between producers and IATSE agree that those discussions have shown little promise. Producers insist that the contract does not guarantee pay for furloughed crew for remote shoot days, while the union argues that it does. And crew members have signaled to their union that they are not interested in pursuing a compromise that would see them paid for anything less than the full number of scheduled workdays. An arbitration hearing to settle the matter is now planned for for January.

“The Rachael Ray Show” has shed roughly 20% of its audience this season compared to last. Through the week of Oct. 18, the show is averaging a 0.8 household rating and 1.1 million total daily viewers. While that’s down from the 1.0 rating and roughly 1.3 million viewers the show averaged over the same period last year, the declines are not as steep as those registered by many other daytime talk shows at a time when TV viewing levels are down across the board.

As happens with many shows, as “Rachael Ray” matured, signs arose that producers were trimming back on expenses. Previous seasons saw more than 70 shoot days, and the number of three-episode shoot days has steadily increased in recent years. Last spring, before the pandemic shutdown, the show eliminated a camera, forcing the reliance on more pre-taped crowd shots.

Ray has built a personal empire over the past two decades, starting with her Food Network series “30 Minute Meals,” which debuted in 2001. Since then she has published dozens of cookbooks, struck endorsement deals with companies like Dunkin’ Donuts and has lent her name to pet food, home decor and other consumer lines. Add in her various shows — including “Rachael Ray” — and according to CelebrityNetWorth.com, Ray earns at least $25 million per year.

In August — a few days after crew were told that September and October shows would be shot remotely — Ray’s house in upstate New York burned down. So far this season she has hosted the show from a guest house on her property, where she is living with her husband John Cusimano, who often appears in episodes with her. Ray is described as very cautious about possible exposure to COVID-19, and Cusimano is usually the only other person in the guest house with her during shoots. In the Season 15 premiere, Ray took viewers on a walkthrough of her ruined main house. “In the 15 years I lived here, I’ve learned an awful lot,” Ray told viewers. “In the few weeks since it burned, I think I’ve learned even more.”

The majority of people who work on the “The Rachael Ray Show” — including union editors, control-room staff and graphic designers — have continued to do so during the pandemic. But Ray’s decision to continue shooting from home puts her in a minority of talk-show hosts. Most other syndicated talkers — including “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and “The Dr. Oz Show,” as well as CBS shows “Dr. Phil,” “The Wendy Williams Show” and “The Drew Barrymore Show” — have shot from their studios this season. On the late-night side, the same is true, though not universally. While ViacomCBS’ “The Late Show” and “The Late Late Show” have returned to their studios, the company’s cable franchise “The Daily Show” has not — though host Trevor Noah has continued to pay his furloughed crew members out of his pocket throughout the remote-production period.

UPDATED at 8:12 p.m. PT Oct. 28 with social-media response from Rachael Ray.

Will Thorne and Michael Schneider contributed to the report.