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HomeColumnsPension, Healthcare & Welfare in the Industry part 5

Pension, Healthcare & Welfare in the Industry part 5

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By Bruce Shutan
In the workplace, an individual’s welfare hinges on a number of factors.
Dallas Salisbury, president and CEO of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., says so-called “welfare” benefits traditionally include life insurance, short-term disability, long-term disability, employee assistance programs and other areas that aren’t part of core retirement and health insurance coverage. “In the event of disaster,” he says, “they make a big difference to you and your family.”
The Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans do not slice out the welfare piece of the pension, health and welfare benefits pie when communicating with below-the-line talent in Hollywood, though health and welfare benefits often are lumped together in a single category in both union and nonunion workplaces.
One can argue that in today’s fast-paced world, flexible schedules and other work-life benefits easily qualify as a major component of an individual’s personal and professional welfare. Indeed, paid time off for holidays and vacations taken “at a time favorable to the employer for business reasons” fall under the legal definition of welfare benefits, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Trouble is, every time a crew is assembled for a motion picture or TV show, the product is so highly specialized that it requires a time-consuming and expensive undertaking in an increasingly competitive business. The result is often an unbalanced existence—the price people pay to work in the industry.
“If you have an early-morning call at 5 or 6, you’re going to work a long day and are expected to be there,” says one Hollywood insider who asked not to be identified. Conversely, the opportunity for time off may be equally extreme between projects. “Sometimes people may have too much time off,” he adds.
Ellen Galinsky, the nation’s leading authority on work-life balance, says “the lack of flexibility production crews face isn’t just happening in Hollywood, it’s happening in lots of other places and industries.” It saddens Galinksy, president of the Families & Work Institute in New York, that executives don’t realize flexible work schedules will result in a greater return on their investment in human capital because employees who are treated with respect will be happier and more productive.
Work-life balance in Hollywood has been somewhat off kilter for years. Rob McCarthy, a third-generation gaffer and member of the Studio Electrical Lighting Technicians Local 728, would barely recognize his dad when he’d return from six months in Thailand or some other long location shoot. “But that’s where the money was, and he had to go,” he says about his father, who followed his own dad’s footsteps as a studio electrician at Universal Studios.
McCarthy is well aware of the trade-offs in an industry that doesn’t always acknowledge the lives of its worker bees off set. The men in his family have seen their share of 24-plus hour shifts and three hours of sleep for consecutive nights that made falling asleep at the wheel a real concern during commutes back home.
For these reasons, he resolved when the first of his two sons was born that he’d try to avoid feature films and episodic television in favor of commercials. “Having seen what long hours and long projects could do to marriages and families, I hoped to spend more time near home,” he explains. “I have a very active role in raising my children, the oldest now 14. Thankfully, I’ve made almost every game, recital, award, or event that was important to them.”
The decision hasn’t been without sacrifice, including long lag times between gigs and nearly constant stress about when the next job will come through. He worries that one day the phone may stop ringing altogether.
Ken Born-stein, A.C.E., a 25-year veteran editor and member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild Local 700 laments the entertainment industry’s reluctance to embrace the more stringent rules and regulations that govern work across the rest of the nation. “The schedules are nearly impossible to meet and people have to work around the clock,” opines Bornstein, who in recent years has worked as an offline editor on Spy TV, The Bachelorette, The Jamie Kennedy Experiment and Are You Hot?
His beef with studio bosses is that they’re either uncaring or incapable of adding work-life balance in a town that has become notorious for its scheduling inflexibility. Bornstein notes that many top Hollywood executives with MBAs or English majors have climbed the corporate latter without the production experience needed to understand how shows are made—and suggests that execs in charge of production not be advanced unless they’ve paid those dues: “If the entertainment business was really smart, they’d pull their executives from people who once worked below-the-line because they have the best understanding of what’s going on.”
McCarthy is matter of fact about his belief that when his father passes away nobody will remember or care about his harrowing experience on a huge shoot in Columbia or other stories from the movie-making trenches. “But I’ll always remember when he would ride up on his Harley to see a game of mine,” he says. “I was certain he had just bailed on a job.”
In the years ahead, below-the-line talent will have little choice but to forge ahead the best they can under challenging circumstances. And as the case of work-life balance shows, there are also larger trade-offs associated with employee benefits as they relate to overall compensation.
Working Americans often will value their benefits at a level that’s higher than they actually cost, observes Teresa Ghilarducci, a national organized labor expert and associate professor at the University of Notre Dame. “The problem is that employers want to have a justifiable reason to cut compensation or slow its growth.”
Who knows? This dramatic struggle may one day unfold as a movie of the week.

Below the Line writer Bruce Shutan has been covering the employee benefits industry for 15 years. Mark London Williams, who writes the page 2 Union Roundup column for Below the Line, contributed to this report.

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