Hollywood's biggest unions applauded the U.S. government extension of unemployment benefits in its COVID-19 relief package to the self-employed and independent contractors, many of whom work in the entertainment industry.
The $2-trillion bipartisan coronavirus stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which President Trump signed into law Friday, includes key benefits for professionals in the arts, entertainment and media industries during the health crisis.
SAG-AFTRA, which represents about 160,000 actors and other performers, projects that between 40,000 and 120,000 members could apply for assistance. The act includes a provision known as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that extends unemployment benefits to those who otherwise would not qualify, including the self-employed and independent contractors.
"This emergency stimulus package contains some key elements that will apply to our members, including higher weekly unemployment benefits, extended weeks of unemployment benefits, a one-time check for every American and their children under a certain annual income, and a special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for those who are not eligible for unemployment currently, such as independent contractors,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris in a statement.
The Writers Guild of America also lauded the deal, saying it will help its 10,000 members who work in the film and TV industries.
"The Writers Guild of America West applauds our federal representatives for answering our collective pleas to allow our members access to federal emergency benefits," the union said in a statement. "The CARES Act provides both direct funds and unemployment benefits for entertainment workers who, without this bill, were ineligible for most forms of relief because of the intermittent nature of our work."
The union urged federal leaders to continue to support the unions and "provide needed economic stimulus, including relief for our pension plan and additional economic support for those most in need.”
Directors Guild of America President Thomas Schlamme said the legislation provided access to "vital lifelines" for its 18,000-plus members.
"Lawmakers have heeded our urgent calls to address the needs of our members and others, everyday working men and women, who were so hard hit by the coronavirus crisis as film and television production shut down, including aid for those whose future projects were canceled," he said in a statement. "This support will keep them protected and will allow them to come out strong on the other end when they’re able to continue work again."
The entertainment industry has been devastated by the COVID-19 outbreak, which has caused a shutdown of film shoots and theaters, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. Companies including Walt Disney and NBCUniversal have been roiled by forced closures of their theme parks and productions. In response to the crisis, several unions, nonprofit groups and businesses have set up relief efforts to assist the most vulnerable workers.
The outbreak threatens to leave workers without income for months. Many workers in Hollywood and members of the leading unions are employed by the major studios and networks, but some are independent contractors and may not qualify for public support without this bill.
"In the United States alone, the film, television and streaming industry supports 2.5 million jobs and 93,000 small businesses — 87 percent of which employ fewer than 10 people," said Motion Picture Association Chairman and Chief Executive Charles Rivkin in a statement. "This bill provides critical relief for independent contractors, freelancers, and small businesses who are the backbone of the entertainment industry and among those whose livelihoods are hardest hit by the current public health crisis."
Under the deal, any employee or contractor working in arts and entertainment who lost work due to the pandemic is eligible to receive a maximum unemployment benefit of $600 per week through July 31. Unemployment benefits will be extended for an additional 13 weeks.
Additionally, there will be a direct $1,200 payment to heads of households earning up to $112,500 a year, or individuals earning up to $75,000 per year. There will be a direct $2,400 payment to married couples earning up to $150,000 per year and $500 for each child under 16.
The bill includes increased funding by $75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $75 million for the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities and $75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The bill also provides grants and forgivable loans established for small businesses and nonprofits.