Revenge Of The Showbiz Assistants: Workers Who Suffered Poor Pay And Abuse Are Flipping The Script

Assistants at several talent agencies described an overall ethos where they were discouraged from putting in for overtime, and that the practice has accelerated at some agencies in recent months as a way to cut costs. In April, the Writers Guild of America instructed members to "fire" their agents in a dispute over industry practices.

A former WME assistant described how the agency's assistants were expected to get their work done between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m., but it was nearly impossible to do so.

"There was an onerous process in place to submit overtime," said the former assistant, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. "The mentality was don't use (it), and no one told you how to apply for it. Within the company it looked bad if you did, like you weren't dedicated to the job."

He recalled a cohort who was in the office so late he ended up sleeping there. "But he didn't get overtime," he said.

A spokeswoman for WME disputed the claim that the agency discourages overtime pay. She said each assistant automatically has 10 hours of overtime allotted into their paycheck each week, with further overtime requiring a supervisor's preapproval.

Representatives of Creative Artists Agency and ICM Partners declined to comment.

By one estimate, more than 4,000 assistants are working in Hollywood. The vast majority of them aren't unionized, but last year script coordinators and writer's assistants banded together to join Local 871 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

The move extended employment protections and such benefits as pensions and healthcare. It also established the minimum scale for writer's assistants at $14.57 an hour, and $16.63 an hour for script coordinators. Those rates will increase 3% in January.

According to Jessica Kivnik and Debbie Ezer, who both worked on the unionizing effort, previous attempts to organize under the Writers Guild of America were rebuffed.

"Other people in classifications approached the WGA asking for assistance in organizing but were refused," said Kivnik, a script coordinator on the Amazon series "Bosch." "We came to IATSE 871 not specifically out of preference but of necessity."

A spokesman for the WGA said in a statement it supported improving working conditions for Hollywood assistants, but that "their job duties don't include writing services under the jurisdiction" of the Writers Guild of America West.

Ezer, a former lawyer and currently a script coordinator, said it was important to unionize. "I wanted to see basic protections at the assistant level because they are the most vulnerable," she said. "None of us are in these positions because we want to be assistants for life. We all want to move up."

But almost immediately, a number of assistants said, the studios pushed back, with many using minimum rates as standard wages.

In the furor after the "Scriptnotes" podcast, there was talk of a walkout or strike. There were also stories of showrunners going to bat for assistants, but their largesse remains a stopgap measure because studios and production executives control the purse strings.

Many, like Alper and Mangan, are working to translate the current noise into action. They are collecting data on salaries and working conditions for assistants and examining whether existing state law needs to be updated.

Given that most assistants aspire to other roles in Hollywood, formal unionization may not make sense, says Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of Netflix's "BoJack Horseman," whose current season features an assistants' strike. But he supports short-term organization of assistants to identify concrete next steps.

"What is a fair wage for an assistant to get in this day and age?" he asked. "I would love for some maybe informal standards to be set. I would love to put pressure on companies to maybe sign a pledge of some sort."

Last year, after slogging through a few more assistantships, Mondy walked away from the industry altogether. "I'm not done with writing," she said. "But I'll never be an assistant again." ___ (Times TV editor Matt Brennan contributed to this report.) ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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