Hollywood’s unions and management’s Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers are gearing up to renegotiate the terms of their return-to-work agreement, which expires on April 30. The companies and the unions have been making minor adjustments to those safety protocols as conditions evolved, but Covid-19 vaccinations have not been required for cast and crew members. That could change, however, now that vaccines are becoming more generally available.
SAG-AFTRA said Thursday that “from the start of the pandemic, safety and a safer return to work have been a priority for SAG-AFTRA. Vaccinations are the most vital part in the next phase of combating this virus and getting back to work safely.”
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The film and TV companies’ agreement with the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and the Teamsters was reached on Sept. 21, 2020 – nearly three months before the first Covid-19 vaccine was administered in the U.S. The 57-page agreement between the companies and the unions only mentions “vaccine” once, stating: “The provisions of this Agreement have been negotiated based on the present conditions, which include currently available scientific/medical information, current levels of infection, public health authorities’ current guidelines and recommendations, and the current lack of a vaccine for Covid-19.”
Now that vaccines are becoming more available, however, some companies might want to require their workforces to become vaccinated before they can come to work. Details of any changes, however, will have to be negotiated with the unions in the upcoming talks before any vaccine mandate can go into effect. Some allowances might have to be made, however, for those who can’t – or won’t – be vaccinated.
Since its adoption, the unions and the companies have agreed to numerous adjustments to the protocols, which established guidelines that included mandatory testing for Covid-19, symptom screening, masks and other PPE, physical distancing, disinfection and maintenance, paid leave policies, mandatory Covid-19 compliance officers and a system of “zones” to ensure that different sections of a production would be tightly controlled to establish barriers within which those on set can move about based on proximity to cast.
The AMPTP and the unions agreed to tweak the protocols in late-November as more and more films and TV shows had to pause production after members of their casts and crews tested positive for Covid-19. Under a side-letter to the agreement that took effect on November 30, producers were required to notify the unions of positive test results on their shows so that the unions could apprise cast and crew of the Covid-19 status of their sets.
“When we and our sister unions negotiated the safety and testing protocols in our Return-to-Work agreement with producers,” the DGA told its members at the time, “we knew that as circumstances changed, adjustments would be required to manage the risk of exposure to Covid-19 in the workplace.” The protocols, which were many months in the making, “have been largely effective in catching infected individuals before they are contagious, and limiting the potential spread on set,” the DGA told its members in January.
That same month, with Covid-19 cases surging around the country, SAG-AFTRA told its members that the return-to-work protocols have been “a remarkable success” and that “the data indicates that our production sets remain safe environments despite the surge in community infection rates in various North American cities.”
Last June, when the four unions adopted a 31-page set of return-to-work guidelines called “The Safe Way Forward,” they noted that “This document represents what we believe to be a path for employers to provide a safer workplace for their cast and crew members in a pre-vaccine Covid-19 world.”
Two weeks earlier, the Industry-Wide Labor Management Safety Committee Task Force issued a 22-page “White Paper” for the safe return-to-work that didn’t even mention vaccines, which at the time were only a dim hope for the future. The White Paper was then submitted to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom, allowing production to resume in those states.
The agreement reached between the AMPTP and the unions in September – which expire at the end of next month – codified those protocols into contract language that’s now being used to cover film and television production.