Hollywood syndicate health insurance is particularly good. And is threatened by the strike

America Ferrera joins the SAG-AFTRA picket in front of Netflix in New York City. Qualified actors get a great deal on health insurance from their union.

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America Ferrera joins the SAG-AFTRA picket in front of Netflix in New York City. Qualified actors get a great deal on health insurance from their union.

Rob Kim/Getty Images

To update: After this story was published, SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union, sent members a letter saying that health insurance would be extended to certain members who would otherwise have lost their eligibility on October 1st. continue to obtain union health insurance until the end of the year.

The issues dominating the double strike of actors and writers in Hollywood are artificial intelligence, residual payments and job protection. But a topic that is often a sticking point in labor negotiations, health insurance has gone unnoticed.

A-list stars have been out in force taking selfies on picket lines in the bright California sun, but it’s the people who may never have walked a red carpet who are forgoing pay and, potentially, health insurance as negotiations rage. drag on and the work dries up. above.

The health insurance offered by both unions is based on the notion that it is intended for members who work consistently and profitably enough to earn a minimal amount of money. This makes insurance difficult first to obtain and then to sustain. In return, it’s really, really good health insurance.

Remnant of a Bygone Era

Often referred to in low, reverent tones as the “Cadillac of health insurance” by those who own it, the policy offered by the writers’ guild, for example, seems like a holdover from a bygone era. It has no monthly premiums, costs $600 a year to cover the rest of your immediate family, and has deductibles that run into the hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.

This story was produced in partnership with KFF Health News.

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But the biggest strike in more than six decades in Hollywood threatens that security. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike since May 2, and the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, since mid-July. Together, they represent more than 170,000 workers, who are refusing to do any part of their jobs after negotiations with studios and streamers stalled. Writers and actors can lose eligibility for insurance simply because they are not working during the strike.

“If we are so close to not having [health insurance] so we’re already on a knife’s edge, which is why we’re attacking, although in the short term it just shines a light on the problem,” said filmmaker and Writers Guild member Susanna Fogel.

Tricky formula for writers

For writers to qualify for health insurance, they must earn a little over $41,700 a year in covered union work, and waste doesn’t count. The income requirement continues to rise, which, together with the increasingly uncertain reliability of employment, means that even seasoned writers can struggle to qualify.

Writers can accumulate credits by qualifying for WGA health insurance for 10 years and earning more than $100,000 in covered work. Top earners can accumulate three points a year, which can be redeemed when writers hit a dry spell and fail to meet the minimum income requirement, but health coverage ends the quarter after credits run out.

For example, a writer who qualifies for health insurance for 10 years but earns less than $100,000 can cash out all of her points and stay on insurance for up to a year and a half if she’s just insuring herself.

But insuring dependents costs more claims, which means people with families have fewer interim solutions to fall back on.

As the strike drags on for another quarter, many union members surreptitiously calculate how many credits they have and how long this temporary measure will buy them, if they have credits at all.

The good business of actors is precarious

In contrast, residual payments count towards the $26,000 a year that SAG-AFTRA members must earn to qualify for health insurance offered by the actors’ union. This makes increasing residual payouts, especially from streamers like Netflix, a high priority for members on the fringes.

SAG-AFTRA plan premiums are $125 per month for union members. For a family of four or more, the monthly cost rises to $249 per month or $2,988 per year. That’s less than half of the $6,680 the average California worker with employer-sponsored health insurance paid for family coverage in 2022, according to a report by the California Health Care Foundation.

Members of both unions say it took them years to earn enough money to qualify for union health insurance, while other union members who worked in the industry for years never did.

“The times I was at risk or lost health insurance in the past, before the strike, were when I was working,” said filmmaker Fogel, who is also a member of the Directors Guild of America. “I was working, but there were job details that caused me to fall short or fall into the wrong month to be covered. So it was always a stress.”

Should unions simply lower the income requirement to a lower amount so that more members can qualify? Alex Winter, a longtime member of three industrial unions, doesn’t think so.

“It seems draconian to turn to the unions and say, ‘Well, since we’ve got these oligarchs who are sucking up all the profits, let’s try to take what few squirrel nuts we have and spread them among those who survived by staying in the industry. ,’ instead of fighting for equitable wages, which is what we’re doing,” Winter said.

Both SAG-AFTRA and WGA were contacted for interviews about their health insurance offerings. SAG-AFTRA declined to be interviewed and the WGA sent LAist a link to its FAQ page.

A new California law could help marginalized strikers

All California workers who lose their employer-sponsored health insurance may be eligible for the state’s Medicaid program, known as Medi-Cal, or qualify to purchase health insurance through Covered California, where your costs may be low if they have a minimum income. Still, it would be a disruption to lose your low-cost SAG-AFTRA or WGA plans, and an added expense at a time when striking workers earn far less money.

Writers and actors who lose union health insurance as a result of the strike will be able to benefit from a new California law that took effect on July 1, 2023, aimed at preventing just that situation.

AB2530 received $2 million in funding under the new state budget. To qualify, a unionized worker must first lose coverage as a result of the strike. According to Covered California spokesman Craig Tomiyoshi, eligible workers will have their premiums covered as if their income were just above the Medicaid eligibility level.

A picket line outside FOX studios in Los Angeles. Hollywood actors have been on strike since mid-July; the writers have been on strike since May.

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A picket line outside FOX studios in Los Angeles. Hollywood actors have been on strike since mid-July; the writers have been on strike since May.

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Not all striking workers will join a free plan. Workers on strike will be able to choose more expensive plans than the reference plan. If they do, they will pay the difference in premiums.

“California covered has seen fewer than 150 applicants who identified a WGA or SAG-AFTRA affiliation apply for coverage,” spokeswoman Kelly Green said in an emailed response. She added that they expect to see more if the strikes continue and that people who anticipate losing their union health insurance should get in touch.

As of January 1, 2024, another law comes into effect. Covered California will end deductibles on mid-tier referral plans, meaning a striking worker could get free premiums under a law and no deductibles starting in the New Year if the labor dispute lasts that long.

Crews left out

The new law does not cover crew members who are not part of the striking unions, but who lost their health insurance due to the work stoppage.

A new mutual aid group was created to fill this gap.

The Union Solidarity Coalition known by its acronym TUSC has raised more than $315,000 to assist members of the International Alliance of Theater Stage Workers and Teamsters, said founding member Alex Winter.

“Honestly, I don’t know anybody in many of the primary areas of the crew who isn’t at risk of losing their health insurance, and I know a lot of people who have lost their health insurance,” Winter said.

The idea for the nonprofit started with conversations between teams and filmmakers, said Susanna Fogel, also a founding member of TUSC and a filmmaker.

“Since their coverage is based on the hours they receive within a certain time window, some of [crew members] mentioned that they or people they knew were at risk of not making their schedule due to production closures, or if they chose not to cross a picket, it could cost them their health insurance,” she said.

TUSC has partnered with the Motion Picture and Television Fund and its Entertainment Health Insurance Solutions, which acts as an insurance navigator for people in the industry.

Fogel says it’s about ensuring that everyone in the industry has access to high-quality healthcare, regardless of current industry conditions.

“Once in a while there is a group of people who are on strike and it’s our turn to strike now, we just wanted to let the other unions know that we consider ourselves part of a collective and we hope they feel that love from us,” he said. Fogel.

Could studios and streamers continue coverage?

They could, but it’s unlikely.

In July, Matt Loeb, president of IATSE, the union that represents behind-the-scenes workers, called on studios and streamers to offer extended health care benefits to those who might lose them if they fail to qualify during strikes. IATSE is not on strike.

“Make no mistake if studios really cared about the economic fallout of their pre-emptive work slowdown… they could continue to pay crew members and fully fund their health care anytime, as they did in 2020 during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. pandemic,” wrote Loeb.

Half of the trustees of the Film Industry Pension and Health Plan are represented by companies involved in the strike. The WGA strike FAQ tells members that “there is no Health Fund requirement that the Health Plan extend health insurance coverage during a strike, and trustees are 50% management and 50% guild.”

This story comes from NPR’s health reporting partnership with KQED It is KFF Health News.

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