The Scary Truth About Workplace Safety on Non-Union Sets

The Scary Truth About Workplace Safety on Non-Union Sets
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Workplace safety is currently a massive challenge being faced on both union and non-union film sets.  However, union crews now have the Industry-Wide COVID-19 Return to Work Agreement as a contract agreement negotiated with employers.  Non-union crews have no such agreement in place, allowing for a patchwork of safety protocols ranging from extremely strict to carelessly slack.

The film Jurassic World: Dominion, shooting in London, had to shut down production for 2 weeks recently after multiple people on set tested positive for COVID-19.  This is an enormous production with stringent safety protocols in place for cast and crew.  If there can be an outbreak there despite the strictest safety protocols, what about non-union sets with questionable safety standards?  How safe can we be working there?

I recently received an audition notification from my agent for a non-union acting job.  The notice contained no safety information about masks being worn in the casting office or social distancing at the audition.  The information about the audition from the client stated that if booked, actors must provide written medical proof that they’re COVID-19 negative within 3 days prior to the shoot date via a medical COVID-19 test.  What does that mean?  Actors would obviously be performing without masks, sometimes in close proximity with other mask-less actors.  The idea of actors providing their own ‘medical proof’ did not seem safe to me, so I turned down the audition.

Here are 4 ways the safety protocols on this non-union job differ from the standards established for union productions:

  1. According to the union Return to Work Contract Agreement, only a lab-based PCR diagnostic COVID-19 test is an acceptable test. Any other medical test is not reliable enough and will not be accepted as sufficient on union sets that fall under the agreement.  A 48 hour turnaround time for test results is preferred, but 72 hours is acceptable until the end of 2020.  The non-union job stated only that a medical COVID-19 test is required, not a PCR test.  So actors, without masks, will be interacting with other actors on set who haven’t taken a reliable test.
  2. On a union set, the Return to Work Contract Agreement states that the employer pays for the COVID-19 test, not the employee. In fact, if the employee is otherwise not working and being paid for the day, they will be paid $250 for the day of the test.  On this non-union job, the actors are expected to be tested on their own and pay for the test.  As far as I know, most tests cost at least $100.  So actors are paying to be able to accept the job, rather than the employer covering the cost of a reliable test, as on a union show.
  3. Casting should be done virtually via video conference or self-tape whenever possible, according to guidelines in the Return to Work Agreement. I’m not sure why this non-union job needed a live casting session.  I imagine the client wanted it, but during the pandemic it doesn’t seem like the safest option.
  4. Minimizing close contact between performers is a key part of the Return to Work Agreement. It states “Consider measures to minimize scenes with close contact between performers, such as amending scripts or use of digital effects.”  Having actors closely interacting with other actors and extras on this non-union production seems unsafe.  Especially since everyone is submitting their own COVID-19 tests, which are not necessarily PCR tests.  And the actors and extras are mask-less.

As I only perform DGA assistant director work, which is covered by the Return to Work Agreement contract, I hadn’t really examined the COVID-19 workplace safety protocols for non-union actors.  Now that work is picking up again, I’m reminded to closely examine any and all casting calls for safety protocol information.  Actors are the most vulnerable workers on set and deserve the highest safety standards.  Based on what I’ve been seeing and hearing about, that’s often not what’s occurring on non-union sets.  Workplace safety is sometimes not be the priority it should be.  On non-union sets not covered by the Return to Work Agreement, it appears that safety guidelines may vary widely from one production to another.  As an actor who’d be on set working without a mask, I want confirmation that the highest safety standards, as per the Return to Work Agreement, are being adhered to at all times.

We all want the pandemic to be over, but until it is, I suggest everyone familiarize themselves with the Return to Work Agreement and observe the safety protocols it contains as much as possible.  No job is worth our health or our lives, on a union or non-union set.  Actors need to be particularly alert and cautious.

Industry Safety Hotline: 888-7-SAFELY


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