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Actors lose out on health benefits as SAG, AFTRA keep separate plans

Actors find it increasingly difficult to meet earnings thresholds for receiving benefits, because their income is carved up between the unions. That's one reason a merger is again under discussion.

May 14, 2010|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times

Fred Ochs' second career as an actor took off last year. The 62-year-old former software engineer landed gigs on nine TV shows, playing the singing policeman in the crime series "The Mentalist," Judge Belford in Showtime's dark "Dexter" and a probate attorney in the A&E drama "The Cleaner."

Now if he could just get health insurance to go along with the steady work. Ochs' pulmonologist has urged him to get examined for a shadow on his lungs. Because his acting work is divided between the two actors unions, Ochs will have to pay for the exam himself.

"It was a great year for me, but because of the way my work was split between SAG and AFTRA, I didn't make enough in either union to qualify," said Ochs, who lives in Hollywood. "It's just plain absurd."

Like children caught in the middle of a parental spat, actors are enduring unintended consequences of a feud that erupted two years ago when the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists suspended its longtime partnership with the Screen Actors Guild to negotiate prime-time TV contracts.

Journeyman actors like Ochs have traditionally earned middle-class wages from playing supporting characters in countless TV dramas, sitcoms and movies.

But now they are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the earnings thresholds required for receiving benefits, which range from about $10,000 to $30,000 a year, because their income is carved up between two unions. Each union has separate health and pension plans, and they don't allow contributions to be combined.

"People are very, very upset and worried," said Kevin E. West, founder of the Actors Network, a professional business organization for actors. "It's a huge problem that affects several hundred working actors."

The sparring between AFTRA and SAG — over turf and strategy — paved the way for AFTRA to clinch its own contract with the studios, which rushed to embrace the ambitious union as a hedge against the more unpredictable SAG.

As a result, the studios swung many of their labor contracts covering network prime-time TV pilots to AFTRA, an incursion that's led to near-100% penetration this year when the smaller actors union won contracts for 81 of 83 pilots.

Health coverage wasn't always a problem.

When SAG dominated prime-time TV contracts, the actors in those shows worked largely under one union roof. But with the landscape now shared by two unions, an actor may work on an older TV series covered by a SAG contract and next take a role on a newer TV series under an AFTRA contract, often not earning enough in either union to meet health plan requirements.

Actors for years have debated merging their unions, but previous attempts in 1999 and 2003 failed, reflecting long-standing mistrust between member factions.

But growing concern over how the status quo is affecting health and pension benefits for actors has renewed the impetus to consolidate the two unions so that a single plan could be offered. Leaders of both have had preliminary discussions about merging.

"Pension and health benefits are a cornerstone of union protection," SAG President Ken Howard said. "When actors' work is split between two unions, that protection is weakened or, in the worst cases, eliminated. That's not acceptable, and it's one of many reasons merging SAG and AFTRA makes sense."

AFTRA President Roberta Reardon said gaining leverage in bargaining and union organizing was the driving reason to merge but added: "I completely agree it would be great to have one health insurance policy and one retirement plan."

That AFTRA, which until recently was pegged as a secondary union for actors who worked mostly on soaps and some cable programs, would emerge seemingly overnight as the go-to union for prime-time TV is a reversal for the more prestigious SAG, which still has exclusive jurisdiction over feature film work.

Although the unions have agreed to resume joint bargaining in the upcoming round of negotiations this fall, actors are still feeling the fallout from the dispute.

"One extra SAG job would have put me over the earnings threshold," said Ochs, who says he can't afford to pay $600 a month for private insurance. "It's a kick in the gut."

And the kick couldn't come at a worse time.

Both unions have steadily raised earnings requirements for insurance at a time when reality TV programs have taken away jobs, movie stars increasingly are filling guest star roles on TV shows and the income that actors get from residuals — the fees paid out when shows rerun — has shrunk.

Cost-cutting in Hollywood also has made it much harder for actors to get their "quotes," the fees that reflect their experience, thereby lowering their earnings and ability to qualify for health insurance.

Beyond earning enough to qualify for insurance, Los Angeles-based actors like Wendy Worthington also complain that the situation is weakening pension benefits.

After a nearly two-decade career playing roles on TV shows including "Desperate Housewives" and "Ghost Whisperer," Worthington, 55, has earned enough credits to be fully vested in the Screen Actors Guild pension plan. With more TV jobs swinging to AFTRA, however, she has less money to pump into her SAG pension, damping the eventual payout she will receive when she retires.

And because Worthington spent most of her career working in SAG, it's doubtful she will qualify for AFTRA's pension plan any time soon.

"I like to joke that I wish they would just send me the cash that I earned under my AFTRA contracts so I could put it in the shredder myself, because it's just lost money for me," she said.

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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