New York, NY – From shuttered TV and film production, to journalists forced onto unemployment — the media industry has been particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 epidemic.
When performers and broadcasters are in potential jeopardy, it’s their union, SAG-AFTRA (The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), that looks out for them.
Among its membership of approximately 160,000, SAG-AFTRA members include actors, announcers, broadcast journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists and other media professionals.
LaborPress recently sat down with President Gabrielle Carteris to learn more about the membership and what SAG-AFTRA is doing to help them navigate the coronavirus crisis.
LP: What are the top challenges facing members right now?
PGC: For our members, it’s absolutely unemployment. The majority of workers are not working. In our industry, people think all of our members are high-profile performers like George Clooney or Tom Hanks – but they’re not; most are journeymen workers. This crisis is universal for all workers.
LP: Are any members working?
PGC: We have a wide swath of membership. We have our broadcasters and the challenges they face, as they’re really on the frontlines. They’re out there reporting from the hospitals, etc. Broadcasters are essential workers. Some members were or are working in studios. Voiceover people can work from home.
LP: Do those that are working have PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)?
PGC: We were able to work with employers to make sure they got PPE to all the workers. We were also able to provide some PPE to those who were working in stations – it was very important to do that.
LP: Have there been members who have gotten sick or died?
PGC: Yes. I personally have friends who are in the union who have it right now. And those are the ones who have been able to be tested. In addition, we’ve sadly lost numerous high-profile members, including actors Mark Blum, Julie Bennett and Allen Garfield, and recording artists Joe Diffie, John Prine, Alan Merrill and Adam Schlesinger.
LP: What is the union doing right now to help the members?
PGC: We immediately reached out to employers when [the crisis] first happened to institute protocol. We’ve also provided dues relief and health care premiums relief. We’re also working on legislation in Washington, D.C., with Nancy Pelosi and [Federal Reserve] Chairman Jerome Powell so our members can collect unemployment. We also have the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s COVID-19 Relief Fund. It has given out over $2 million in grants to help people put food on the table and pay rent.
We’re also making sure all our members have resources [which we list on our] website at sagaftra.org/covid-19. For example, some people need food – we make sure they know where to go to get it. Also, mental health – there are so many mental health challenges, we’ve added that to the website. We are looking at every local’s community. We recognize that lack of information breeds fear. We e-blast regularly and have a regular podcast – we had one on taxes, one on unemployment, and webinars and a magazine that goes out. We’re also active on social media. Twitter and Instagram are big for us. Like anything, people do better when they understand the situation.
We just want to stay connected to the members.