EXCLUSIVE: In many ways, location scouts and managers were the canaries in the coal mine for the industry’s coronavirus shutdown. As news accounts reported the spread of the virus, first in Asia and then in the U.S., homes and businesses began closing their doors to location shoots. It happened slowly at first, and then all at once. Scouts and managers, represented by Hollywood’s Teamsters Local 399, also were among the first in the industry to apply for newly expanded unemployment benefits – up from the maximum of $450 a week to $1,050 a week for the next four months.
Deadline reached out to location scouts and managers to see how they’re coping with the shutdown, and if they’ve started getting the extra $600 a week in employment benefits allocated by Congress in the $2 trillion relief bill. For those who had been working, most received two weeks of shutdown pay, so their unemployment benefits are just starting to roll in. Everyone interviewed is grateful for the promised additional money, although no one has reported receiving it yet. For most, $450 a week doesn’t even pay the rent, but $1,050 a week pays for that and some bills and groceries, too.
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“I got my first payment from EDD for two weeks, March 15-21 and March 22-28,” said location scout and manager Jamie Danesh. “They did not pay me for the first week, probably due to the usual one-week waiting period, and I only received $450 for the second week. I was under the impression that they were waiving the waiting period and I hope they add the $600 additional soon!”
Location managers, like most other industry workers, are accustomed to collecting unemployment benefits during hiatus periods. “Everybody I know has applied,” said veteran location manager Kristi Frankenheimer. “I have a friend whose final week was last week, but it’s been extended because of all this.” The additional $600 a week that will be coming, she said, “will help save a lot of people’s homes. With $1,050 a week, we’ll have a chance of getting through this financially.”
“My pilot for the Disney family channel shut down three weeks ago,” she said. “They were great. I got two weeks’ suspension pay, which was fine. A lot of the studios did that too. So I had to wait two weeks to apply for unemployment. Last Friday, when I went online to do the application process, I saw they have a new category – they ask you if you’ve lost your job because of the COVID-19 disaster. Once you file, you have a one week-waiting period, but I believe that’s being waived.”
Jordana Kronen, a location manager for nearly 30 years, had just finished work on Modern Family and had started work on Games People Play for BET when the shutdown hit. “We were prepping the second season, and March 26 was when we were supposed to start filming. We saw the tidal wave coming, because it was getting increasingly more difficult to do our jobs because locations like hotels, apartments and private homes were canceling. Before everything shut down, we were losing locations due to this. It was just a matter of time before they’d say, ‘We gotta stop this until this is over.’ Everybody felt that. It was a tidal wave over the industry. It just completely wiped us out, pretty much. They’d say, ‘We’ll call you when this is over.’ So a lot of us got a couple of weeks of pay, which was really nice of them, I think, because in this industry when you don’t work, you don’t get paid. That’s the life of the freelance employee. So we’re all on hold waiting to see what happens, and seeing if we can hopefully pick up where we left off.”
Kronen applied for unemployment on Sunday. “I apply for unemployment every hiatus,” she said. “I was on the set of Modern Family for seven years, so every hiatus I apply for unemployment. I found it to be the same this time. It was seamless as always. The only thing you don’t see yet are these incentives that they’re talking about. There was no mention of that. I did notice in the drop-down menu asking if you’re unemployed due to the coronavirus crisis, so of course I marked that, because that’s why I’m unemployed. Other than that, there was no evidence of additional benefits, but I don’t think they’re ready yet – that’s what I keep hearing. I put in my claim and I’m gonna hope for the best.”
As for the additional $600 in weekly benefits on top of the maximum of $450 a week, she said: “I don’t think I’m gonna get it right away. I think it’s going to be retroactive, but I don’t know how they’re going to do it. When they send you the confirmation, they say, ‘Here’s what you’re getting.’ It was just like normal times. So I do not know when that’s going to be reflected. I don’t know if there’s going to be additional paperwork or they’re going to figure out that we’re entitled to additional benefits. I don’t know how that’s going to work, and I think a lot of location managers have that same question. We’re in a wait and see mode.”
“I think because we’re in the trenches, and we were out talking to people, it was more obvious to me what was coming before it became obvious to the people who work in the office,” she said. “Because my team and I are out in the field, knocking on doors, going into places that are occupied, either by residents or businesses. So it was more obvious because people were starting to get nervous. And it starts with one apartment building saying, ‘We’re really sorry, but we’re not allowing filming until this thing is over.’ And of course, everybody followed suit. It started with one, and then the entire industry followed suit. And we all realized that this was just going to be an impossible task, but then the decision was pretty much made for us, because you couldn’t get a permit, you couldn’t gather more than 50 people. I mean, one thing after another just kept pointing to this – that it would be a complete shutdown. So yeah, I think the location departments probably did feel it a little sooner than some of the people in the office.
“It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the public to allow production crews to enter their property. Private homes and businesses are going to have to trust that the crews aren’t going to make them sick. And crews working together are going to have to trust that their fellow crew members aren’t going to make them sick. It’s going to be interesting to see how long it takes for things to go back to feeling normal again, or it will be a new normal. I’m not sure how that’s going to look.”
Teamsters Local 399, which is allowing members to forego paying dues by taking honorary withdrawal “during this emergency period,” says that members who opt for honorary withdrawal will also remain on “Available” status with the union’s call board. Doing so, the local said, “Will NOT affect your unemployment benefits from the state of California.”
“The Teamsters have been great,” Kronen said. “They really have our best interests at heart. I don’t have to take advantage of the dues reduction at this time, but I’m sure that there are other people that really need to.”
Longtime location manager Murray Miller was working a CBS pilot, in the midst of prepping for a March 16 shoot at an empty house owned by Mount St. Mary’s University, “when the studio cancelled everything,” he said. “Our prep crew became a strike crew, and we worked Friday, Saturday and Monday to get everything out that we’d put in and clean-up – what Locations does. I got an extra day on-payroll to help get final invoices in from my vendors – layout board, cleaning – and to cancel others – toilets, trash, air conditioning, security – what Locations does. The following Sunday, March 22, I signed up for unemployment, as I’ve done between jobs since before Ronald Reagan was president. It was the same online form I’ve always seen at the State website, because (maybe) I was reopening an existing claim rather than opening a new claim, and so didn’t see the ‘Coronavirus’ drop-down. We are going to receive two weeks’ ‘Supplemental Income,’ which will just be our salary, and not include our car allowance, which is in our contract because of the amount of driving we do.
“I’m lucky to be in a rather different situation than many of my colleagues, as I was quite literally thinking this pilot would be my last job after 40+ years in the business: I’m fully vested for pension and medical, and so what the hey. As a result, I’m looking at this forced homebound-ness as a rehearsal for my retirement. I’m still doing what exercise I can, bike riding being my fave; my wife and I take long walks, we’re running through Netflix and Amazon Prime, and I’ve got a bunch of DVDs – you remember those? – I’ve never watched. But I worry about my younger colleagues: those who are early-to-mid-career who can’t really afford to not work for an extended period – months? What do they do? I know this matter is not just about the extended entertainment industry, but this is the field in which I have friends. What happens to colleagues with whom I worked who are in their 30’s-50’s? They’ve all got rents or mortgages; they’ve got young kids… what do they do? It’s very reminiscent of the 2008 production STOP which happened because of a threatened actors’ strike, on the heels of the writers’ strike, when work was extremely scarce – I was eight hours short for qualifying for medical for one qualifying period, which would have driven me onto COBRA, which I couldn’t afford; a colleague gave me 1 day of work for 12 hours, which qualified me for the next six-month period.”
The extra $600 a week that he and his fellow unemployed workers will receive is much-needed, he said – especially since the former maximum hadn’t been adjusted for the cost of living in years. “Providing colleagues with this supplement will be a life-save for many. In my position, it will certainly help, but, again, I’m lucky to see ‘the end.’ But that could easily change: with the lack of contributions from current film technicians, what happens to our pension plan? I’ll have to see what happens when this nightmare is over regarding ending work, because who knows what’ll be there for me in retirement?”
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