UPDATED with statement from fund’s trustees: Actors’ Equity is calling on union trustees of the Equity-League Health Fund to withdraw their support from a plan that will make it more difficult for theatrical actors and stage managers across the country to qualify for health benefits when legitimate theaters reopen.
The Health Fund, which provides health coverage to thousands of participants and their dependents, said that changes in eligibility rules announced today are necessary because the loss of revenue from the closure of theaters has “drastically affected the Fund’s financial position.” (The Health Fund is a separate entity from Actors’ Equity, and is governed by a Board of Trustees appointed in equal number by Equity and the producers’ trade group the Broadway League.)
Currently, participants who worked for 11 weeks over six months, or 19 weeks in a year, qualify for Health Fund coverage. The Fund announced today, however, that effective Jan. 1, 2021, it will be switching to a three-tier plan, in which participants will have to work at least 12 weeks to qualify for the lowest tier of benefits; 14 week for the next level, and 16 weeks to qualify for the top rung of benefits.
“With most members unable to work since March, the past six months have been among the most difficult any of us has ever faced. We recognize the emotional and financial burdens you are facing,” the Fund said today in a statement to participants, noting that “88% of the Equity-League Health Fund is financed by employer contributions.”
“Although most employer contributions to the Fund stopped when the work did, the Trustees are looking for ways to continue meaningful coverage to as many participants as possible,” the statement continued. “The Trustees have been working with the Fund’s professional advisors to determine how to accomplish that goal. After looking at many different approaches, the Trustees have developed a solution that balances meaningful coverage with the long-term sustainability of the Fund.”
See the Fund’s new plan here.
In response, the Actors’ Equity Council – the union’s ruling body – has passed a resolution directing the Fund’s union trustees to renounce the changes until further study of the impact on the union’s members can be conducted.
“Recently, Council became aware that the Health Fund was preparing to announce plan changes,” said Equity president Kate Shindle. “The more we learned, the more concerned we became that not enough work had been done by the health fund to determine how these changes would impact our members. That is why Council passed a resolution directing the union’s trustees to withdraw support from plan changes and delay the announcement that was made today until a demographic study was done.”
“I am deeply frustrated,” she said, “that today’s announcement was made against the wishes of the Council and that no study has been returned to Council about how these changes might impact our members who face hiring bias. We all understand that there is no escaping the devastating loss of months of employer contributions nationwide, and no alternative aside from making adjustments to the plan. But I believe that the fund had both the obligation and the financial reserves to take the time to make better choices.”
Before the new plan is adopted, Equity’s Council wants to see a study on how the changes will impact participants living outside New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and on the potential harm – and remedies that can be found to mitigate the harm – for pregnant participants and those who are Black, Indigenous and people of color.
In a statement, the trustees said that the changes are required to save health benefits for as many participants as possible, and urged Congress to pass a COBRA subsidy to help the nation’s unemployed retain the health insurance formerly provided by their former employers.
Here is the full statement:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the live theatre industry. Virtually all productions have been shut down for the past six months. Further, it remains uncertain when they will resume in any substantial way, or, upon reopening, how soon patrons will feel comfortable returning.
“The Equity-League Health Fund relies on employer contributions to fund health coverage for our participants, which consists of stage managers and actors of widely varying incomes. Those employer contributions are generated, in turn, by the work performed by our participants. The sudden and unprecedented cessation of theatre work has therefore drastically affected the Health Fund’s financial position. The benefit changes developed by the Trustees and their professional advisors are essential for ensuring that the Health Fund can survive this crisis. The new plan design provides a meaningful healthcare benefit that is accessible to as many participants as feasible.
“We understand that, without the ability to work, many participants may not qualify for coverage under any realistic benefit plan we could devise and financially sustain. Sadly, there is nothing the Health Fund can do to affect the course of the pandemic or to accelerate the safe reopening of live theatre. However, there is something that our federal leaders can do to help our participants maintain their vital healthcare coverage. We strongly urge Congress and the White House to act swiftly and urgently to pass a 100% COBRA subsidy for workers who have been laid off or furloughed because of the pandemic.”
The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) allows eligible employees who have lost their jobs to continue receiving health benefits.
The SAG-AFTRA Health Plan, facing staggering deficits, will also be raising eligibility requirements on Jan. 1, 2021.