Hair & Makeup Artists’ Coronavirus Risk: Guild Says Medical Insurance Is Protected; UK Production Continues

Hair & Makeup
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

While the industry buckles under the weight of coronavirus, those crew members who often live paycheck-to-paycheck stand on the front lines of the financially affected.

But what of those below-the-line workers most vulnerable to infection? Makeup artists and hair stylists are required by trade to be up close and personal with people. Now, with their work canceled and social distancing in place, they not only have to worry about paying the bills, but also whether they’re the most likely in the industry to develop symptoms.

As of lunchtime Tuesday, Randy Sayer, the Los Angeles-based Business Representative for hair and makeup guild Local 706, has been on the phone without a break for seven-and-a-half hours straight. With 2,000 of his 2,100 members out of work right now, he’s essentially running triage, doing his best to reassure, listen, advise and offer emotional support. First off, he talks to them about protecting their health.

Medical insurance has never felt more vital than now, and during a call this morning with the union’s International President Matthew Loeb and International Vice-Presidents Michael Miller and Thomas Davis, Sayer says a plan was put in progress to protect member insurance. The Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan, Sayer says, is “a billion-dollar-plus plan and no one is going to allow this thing to fail.” Members who lost work to the virus will be protected. “No one is going to be hung out to dry,” he said.

Inundated with calls from anxious people whose insurance covers their entire family, Sayer says the guild plans to be flexible when it comes to paying dues. “I’m telling people, ‘I know you’re already scared about the dues or the co-pays that are due on April 1, I’m telling you, we’re going to cross that bridge when we come to it.’ The work is not there, our people are hurting, we understand that… If I have to take another IOU on July 1, we’re not going anywhere. The entertainment industry will rebound.”

There is some hope that these artists are somewhat protected by virtue of their training. As Sayer says, “As far as makeup artistry training, or people who are hair stylists who’ve received a state cosmetology license, we are really good about not communicating disease from one person to another.”

Over on the East Coast, hair department head Brian Badie (Queen & Slim, True Detective) agrees. “For me as a hair stylist, part of my job is to stay sterile, because I touch people for a living. I take a lot of precautions. I’m always washing my hands, I don’t shake hands on set as a norm, before corona even came.”

Badie has been at home since Thursday, when production halted on his current gig, Amazon show Master, which shot in Poughkeepsie, NY, at Vassar College. Luckily, Badie recently wrapped an eight-month job on Lovecraft Country and has savings. Amazon has also paid everyone for two weeks ahead—a plan Badie was told they will continue to assess.

Badie says friends in Atlanta have not been offered pay for their shows that went dark. But, he is hearing that the guild has allowed people to dip into their annuity funds, should they need it.

On that question of the annuity fund situation, Sayer says, “Same union, different plan. There is an East Coast plan and a West Coast plan. The West Coast plan is in talks. It’s too early to talk about all of it. But your retirement plan you get taxed on when you touch it, so if you take out a large portion of that, you’re going to get taxed on that. So, we’re trying to lay the groundwork so the taxes can be eased. If people so take a sizeable $10,000 or $20,000 chunk out of what’s going to become their retirement, and half of that goes to taxes, it kind of eliminates the benefit of it.”

The tax easing plan is “getting ironed out” he says, but he sees it as “a last-ditch effort. Nobody wants to dip into their retirement plan. However, for some people this could be a stop-gap measure. I am hoping that our state government and eventually our federal government are going to get a handle on this.”

For some though, there is no safety net whatsoever. Non-guild members, who may be day-hires on set, not only have no guild backup, but they also are seeing their other regular income of one-to-one makeup sessions or salon hair work disappear due to direct health risks. The close nature of the work means even going to a person’s home to see them solo feels treacherous.

Liz Sustaita is a non-guild hair stylist who does talent’s hair for shoots and events, casually works on sets and has a chair at West Hollywood salon 454 North. She’s about to head out to a client’s house, but she’s nervous. “I do worry that I’m not actually supposed to be doing that,” she says. “But since we’re 1099 (freelance) we don’t get sick days, we don’t get vacation days, we can’t use anything, so if we’re not actually in the salon or on set or doing a job, we’re making zero dollars.”

Over in the UK, production remains standing on the film True Things About Me, starring and produced by Ruth Wilson and Jude Law. The film’s hair and makeup designer Nadia Stacey is at home today, but about to return to work on the Kent-based set following a one-day fever. She had been immediately sent home at the first sign of illness, but, her fever having abated and with no other symptoms, will be allowed back to the set tomorrow.

“They have been very vigilant,” she says. “We only started last week, and right now we’re going day-by-day. But everything else has been shut down, so I don’t know how long we’ll be going.” Stacey has been incredibly stringent, sanitizing everything religiously and wearing glasses to do make-up. “But the thing is,” she says, “we are so close to other people’s faces and there’s no getting away from that. We’re touching people’s faces and touching people’s hair.”

The production was originally planned for five weeks in the UK and one week in Spain. “But immediately, we saw we were not going to be going there. It’s really scary, all the films that I was attached to this year obviously are shut down or pushing or just in limbo at the moment. I have no work planned this year and it hasn’t been that way for me for a long time.”

Back in Los Angeles, Sayer readies himself for an afternoon press conference and many more phone calls. He sounds tired. “If I’d had this conversation with you 10 days ago,” he says, “you’d have thought I was a kook. Just some crazy person talking about end-of days stuff.”

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