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Lights, Camera, No Action: Insurance Troubles Beset Entertainment Workers

Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the entertainment industry in March, Jeffrey Farber had a steady stream of daytime jobs in film and television, including work on “Hunters” and “Blue Bloods.” But when theaters, movies and TV shows shut down production, Farber not only lost his acting income, but he also stopped racking up the hours and income he needed to qualify for the job. health insurance through its union, SAG-AFTRA.

Without the acting jobs, his insurance would end this month.

When the pandemic halted film and television production, Jeffrey Farber lost his acting income and stopped earning the hours and income he needed to qualify for health insurance through his union. , SAG-AFTRA.(Michael Roman)

“It’s an incredible situation,” said Farber, 65, a pancreatic cancer survivor. “There will be so many people who can’t make it.”

From Broadway to Hollywood, many actors, directors, backstage workers, musicians and others in the performing arts are facing similar cover suspensions. Those in the entertainment industry often have multiple employers over the course of a year as they move from show to show. In some ways, they are quintessential gig workers.

Their employers generally make financial contributions to a benefit fund under the terms of the collective agreement. And workers pay premiums on their coverage. If workers accumulate a predetermined number of hours or earnings, they may be eligible for coverage for up to one year. Coverage is usually comprehensive and fairly inexpensive. Farber only paid $408 every three months to cover him and his husband.

It’s a model that some academics say could work for others in the gig economy. “This makes coverage possible in industries like retail, construction and entertainment where it wouldn’t otherwise be available,” said JoAnn Volk, research professor at the Center for Health Insurance Reforms at the Institute. Georgetown University.

As the COVID pandemic period has shown, this doesn’t always work out well. Someone in the entertainment industry may be able to get through a dry spell without any work because they already qualify for coverage based on previous employment. But once coverage expires, this system could put performers at a disadvantage relative to other workers who return to more conventional work, where coverage can begin immediately. Additionally, members may continue to owe union dues even if they are not eligible for health benefits.

The timing of the shutdown couldn’t be worse for Farber, who only needed 12 days of work or $249 in earnings at the end of June to qualify for continued coverage in October. Accumulating that would have been “easy as pie,” he said.

In entertainment union benefit plans, “coverage is always forward-looking,” said Phyllis Borzi, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Labor who ran the Benefits Security Administration and is now a consultant. “It works well if you have a short hiatus, but they’ve been out for so long, as long as they have hours in the bank, they must be exhausted by now.”

SAG AFTRA represents approximately 160,000 television, radio, film and other media professionals. The union demands that members this year in general must accumulate at least 84 days of qualifying work or earn $18,040 over four quarters to qualify for coverage for the next four quarters.

Farber eventually got a temporary reprieve because he learned he might qualify for coverage with lower earnings under a separate category for people under the age of 40 with 10 or more years of health plan eligibility. But he doesn’t know how planned coverage changes for next year will affect his eligibility.

The health plan has taken some steps to alleviate concerns raised by members. In April he reduce health care premiums half in the second quarter and announced this month a temporary reduction COBRA bonuses for certain members.

The SAG-AFTRA Benefit Fund did not respond to requests for comment.

Even in the best of times, it can be difficult for entertainment industry players whose names appear in the fine print in the credits to string together enough work to qualify for coverage. If social restrictions were to ease and people could find work before the fall, accrued hours and earnings might be too far in the past to count towards future coverage, leaving them nowhere else. choice but to start accumulating them again.

In contrast, when employers hire someone eligible for in-service coverage, they cannot impose timeouts more than 90 days for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Like people who work for a single employer, workers who lose coverage through their union benefits plan can continue their coverage for up to 18 months under federal COBRA law, but workers who do so choices generally have to bear the full cost of the plan. And COBRA coverage doesn’t come cheap. They can also enroll in a plan in their state market set up by the Affordable Care Act or, if eligible, in Medicaid, the federal state program for low-income people.

“You try to fill a tub with water and it just keeps getting a hole, said Los Angeles cameraman Dee Nichols. “They’re fine with guys like me contributing and can’t shoot [benefits] outside of that. It makes me crazy. »(Dee Nichols)

When the pandemic hit in mid-March, Dee Nichols had logged 512 of the 600 hours he needed to accumulate over a six-month period to qualify for health coverage with the Film Industry Health Plan.

Nichols, a Los Angeles cameraman who is a member of the International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, had two shows scheduled in early March that would have brought him to the threshold by March 21, the end of his qualifying period for the cover. . Then the production was canceled.

It wasn’t the first time Nichols, 49, has missed the hours of coverage target through his union plan. “You try to fill a bucket with water and it keeps having holes,” Nichols said. Meanwhile, he pays $400 per month for an individual market plan with a $6,000 deductible. “They’re fine with guys like me contributing and can’t shoot [benefits] out,” he said. “It makes me crazy.”

The Film Industry Health Plan has also offered some relief to members, including extending a few hours of credit, waiving bonuses for dependents and offering COBRA subsidies.

But the assist didn’t help Nichols qualify for coverage.

He and another member are part of a class action lawsuit arguing that the health plan has a responsibility under federal law to treat all plan members equally.

The health plan did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear when “we’ll be working again”

To help its members during the pandemic, the Actors’ Equity Association health plan premiums waived for three months from May and is temporarily offering a lower cost plan until the end of the year.

But because these multi-employer plans are self-funded, they pay participants’ claims directly. This can cause problems when work is scarce and employers do not contribute to the fund.

“All of these health funds have different financial situations, and they have to maintain reserves in order to maintain coverage for their members,” said Brandon Lorenz, communications director for the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents about 52,000 actors and managers.

SAG-AFTRA, which screened a Deficit of $141 million in its health plan this year, announced profound changes to coverage for next year, including higher thresholds on earnings and days worked to be eligible for coverage.

That could prove an additional challenge for Jeffrey Farber, who worries about job opportunities that will be available when the industry recovers.

“None of us knows when production will resume or if we will rework,” he said.

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