Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the entertainment industry in March, Jeffrey Farber had a steady flow of day jobs in film and television, including work on “Hunters” and “Blue Bloods.” But when theaters, movies and TV shows stopped production, not only did Farber lose his acting income, he also stopped accruing the hours and earnings he needed to qualify for health insurance through his labor union, SAG-AFTRA.
Without the acting jobs, his insurance would be ending this month.
“This is an unbelievable situation,” said Farber, 65, a survivor of pancreatic cancer. “There are going to be so many people who aren’t going to be able to make it.”
From Broadway to Hollywood, many actors, directors, backstage workers, musicians and others in the performing arts face similar coverage suspensions. Those in the entertainment industry often have several employers over the course of a year as they move from show to show. In some ways, they’re quintessential gig workers.
Their employers generally make financial contributions to a benefit fund under the terms of the union contract. And the workers pay premiums on their coverage. If workers accumulate a predetermined number of hours or earnings, they can qualify for coverage for up to a year. Coverage is typically comprehensive and quite inexpensive. Farber paid just $408 every three months to cover him and his husband.
It’s a model some academics think might work for others in the gig economy. “It makes coverage possible in industries like retail, construction and entertainment where it might not otherwise be offered,” said JoAnn Volk, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms.
As the COVID pandemic period has shown, it doesn’t always work well. Someone in the entertainment industry may be able to weather a dry spell without any work because he’s already qualified for coverage based on past employment. But once coverage lapses, this system could leave entertainers at a disadvantage over other workers returning to a more conventional job, where coverage can start immediately. Plus, members may continue to owe union dues, even though they aren’t eligible for health benefits.
The timing of the shutdown couldn’t be worse for Farber, who needed just 12 days of work or $249 in earnings by the end of June to qualify for continued coverage in October. Accumulating that would have been “easy as pie,” he said.
In the entertainment unions’ benefit plans, “coverage is always prospective,” said Phyllis Borzi, a former assistant secretary in the Department of Labor who headed the Employee Benefits Security Administration and is now a consultant. “That works fine if you have a short interruption, but they’ve been out so long, to the extent they have hours banked, they must be out of them by now.”
SAG-AFTRA represents about 160,000 professionals in TV, radio, film and other media. The union requires that members this year generally must accumulate at least 84 days of qualifying work or earn $18,040 over four quarters to be eligible for coverage for the next four quarters.
Farber eventually got a temporary reprieve because he learned he could qualify for coverage with lower earnings under a separate category for people who are least 40 years old and have 10 or more years of health plan eligibility. But he doesn’t know how coverage changes planned for next year will affect his eligibility.
The health plan has taken some steps to alleviate concerns raised by members. In April, it cut health care premiums in half for the second quarter and this month announced a temporary reduction of COBRA premiums for some members.
The SAG-AFTRA benefit fund didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Even in the best of times, it can be difficult for those in the entertainment industry whose names appear in small print in the credits to string together enough work to qualify for coverage. If social restrictions were to ease and people could get work heading into fall, any accumulated hours and income may be too far in the past to count toward future coverage, leaving them no choice but to start accumulating them all over again.
In contrast, when employers hire someone eligible for on-the-job coverage, they typically can’t impose waiting periods longer 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 benefit plan can continue their coverage for up to 18 months under federal COBRA law, but workers who make that choice generally have to pick up the entire cost of the plan. And COBRA coverage is not cheap. They may also enroll in a plan on their state marketplace set up by the Affordable Care Act or, if they qualify, in Medicaid, the federal-state program for low-income people.
When the pandemic hit in mid-March, Dee Nichols had logged 512 of the 600 hours he needed to accumulate in a six-month period to qualify for health coverage with the Motion Picture Industry health plan.Nichols, a camera operator in Los Angeles who is a member of Local 600 of the International Cinematographers Guild, had two shows lined up in early March that would have brought him up to the threshold by March 21, the end of his qualifying period for coverage. Then production was canceled.
It wasn’t the first time that Nichols, 49, had missed the hours target for coverage through his union plan. “You’re trying to fill a tub of water and it keeps getting holes,” Nichols said. Meanwhile, he pays $400 a month for an individual marketplace plan with a $6,000 deductible. “They’re fine with guys like me contributing and then not being able to pull [benefits] out of it,” he said. “It drives me insane.”
The Motion Picture Industry health plan also offered some relief to members, including extending them some hours of credit, waiving premiums for dependents and offering COBRA subsidies.
But the assistance 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 participants equally.
The health plan didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Unclear When ‘We’ll Work Again’
To assist its members during the pandemic, the Actors’ Equity Association health plan waived premiums for three months starting in May and is temporarily offering a lower-cost plan through the end of the year.
But since these multi-employer plans are self-funded, they pay members’ claims directly. That can cause problems when work is scant and employers aren’t paying into the fund.
“All of these health funds have different financial positions, and they have to maintain reserves in order to maintain coverage for their members,” said Brandon Lorenz, communications director of the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents approximately 52,000 actors and stage managers.
SAG-AFTRA, which has projected a $141 million deficit in its health plan this year, announced far-reaching changes to coverage for next year, including higher thresholds on earnings and days worked to qualify for coverage.
That could prove an added challenge for Jeffrey Farber, who is concerned about what job opportunities will be available when the industry recovers.
“None of us knows when production is going to start again or if we’ll work again,” he said.