Pete Freeland's POV: Los Angeles
As an actor, you may start out doing projects just for the love of it, to learn, to build relationships, to get footage for your reel. All good things, right? Yeah! But once you're getting paid--whether under union contracts or on paid nonunion projects before you join the union--you're rockin', right? Well... what about when that check never comes? Uh-oh. It happens. Actor Pete Freeland has some wonderful tips for how to handle this sticky situation so that you can get your money... eventually!
When an Actor Doesn't Get Paid
One of the experiences that all actors face early on in our careers is that we do a lot of "copy-credit-meal" gigs; in other words we go into an acting job knowing that we aren't going to be paid for it. In this situation, we understand that it's all part of getting those experiences on our resumés, and hopefully some footage that we can use for our demo reels.But what happens when you book an acting job and then... never get paid?
Do we as actors have any recourse, especially if we aren't in the union or represented by an agent? Are we supposed to just "chalk it up to experience," and hope that it doesn't happen again? Or is there something we can actually do to enforce our rights as professional performers?
I know how it feels as I had it happen several times. It was frustrating to see my commercial being played knowing--after months of trying with countless emails and voicemails--that I was never going to see a dime. Sure it wasn't financial independence, but for that $200 to $600, it was worth it to me as an actor to know that my time and skills were valuable, and to stop feeling like I was being taken advantage of. On the third time it happened to me, I decided to stop being a victim and did a little homework to see what I could do... and it turns out there is a lot that can be done!
If you do a job that is covered under the SAG-AFTRA contracts, and you are not paid in a timely manner (generally within two to three weeks) then you can get paid with SAG's assistance. All productions have to put the equivalent of the first week's actors' pay into an escrow account with SAG prior to the actual shoot. If the production company fails to pay you, then you have the pay available from SAG directly. At the end of a production, if a company wants to get that escrow deposit back they have to prove in writing to SAG that all the actors were paid on time and in their entirety. If there is any element of a deferred compensation associated with the project there has to be a set of very detailed and explicit conditions stating when and how the pay will be done at a later date.
Regardless of the union status, all actors are considered employees in the eyes of the State labor commission. We as actors show up when told, wear what we are told to wear, do the job we are directed to do, and at the end of the day are told when we can go home.
We are in all legal sense employees and NOT independent contractors in the definitions according to the State labor boards. As such, we are covered by their rules. When I found this out it was HUGE news to me! You mean I actually had rights as a nonunion actor? You bet! And failure to follow those procedures, including timely payment of wages, can be very, very expensive for the production team.
So, how does this work exactly? It varies a little from state to state, but in California we have Labor Code 203, which states that an employee must be paid within two weeks of finishing a job. For every day past those two weeks, employees are entitled to their pay plus as a penalty the delayed pay again per day, for a maximum of 30 days. For example, if you were supposed to be paid $500 for a day of shooting that was done between the 1st and the 15th of the month, then they have to pay you by the 25th of the month (if shooting between the 16th of the month to the end of the month they have to pay you by the 10th of the next month).
If you have not been paid by that time then you are entitled to a waiting time penalty equivalent to your daily rate for EVERY DAY past the 25th. That means you would be eligible for an ADDITIONAL $500, for a maximum of 30 days. If you don't get paid for another month the production company owes you $15,500! Very expensive to procrastinate paying actors in California!
Next question: What is exactly the process? The actor needs to file a complaint with the local labor commissioner in the county in which the work took place. This takes a few days to get into the system, and then after a few months as it works into the system they will send a follow-up letter to confirm that you have not been paid all that was owed or that you still want to proceed. If you do, you send the letter back and in about six to eight weeks they provide a hearing date and location. This hearing is between you, those that owe you the pay, and the labor commissioner. All three sit in a room and discuss the case. After the case is heard, the commissioner will render a decision within 15 days. The decision can be appealed by either party. If no one appeals it within 10 days the decision is permanent. Once the decision is reached, the production company has 10 days to pay you, otherwise they get into a whole level of new trouble... so generally they will pay fast.
A few words about this process: First, it takes a long time--maybe six to eight months or more from start to finish--so don't expect to be paid overnight. Next, this is an area of law where it really is much better to have an entertainment or labor lawyer help you out. We as actors don't have the credibility or experience and this is definitely one area that it's not advisable to be self-represented. Most attorneys will work on a contingency fee basis, i.e. they get 40% and you get 60% of whatever funds are recovered. I compare it to having agents and managers. I would rather have 60% of something than 100% of nothing so I gladly pay them for their expertise. In many cases, they can negotiate a settlement before it even gets to the hearing, so I highly suggest getting representation to help out in this area.
The bottom line is that our job should be to play characters and not our own victim. You as an actor have more power and respect than you know, so use it wisely!
So often, actors believe they have no recourse, if a contract isn't honored. Let's be clear: You have more going for you the larger the paper trail that exists for the job. Until you are paid, maintain a file of all emails and contracts, the original breakdown, call sheets, and anything else that proves you were promised a particular rate of pay, so that you can have backup for what you claim you are due, should producers fail to pay you.
About Pete Freeland
Pete Freeland is an actor with a twist. For his day job, he's an aerospace engineer and former test pilot, while moonlighting as a high school teacher and scuba instructor. He is regularly seen on various national commercials including the recent Taco Bell Super Bowl ad, and his first self-produced feature film is out on iTunes. Originally from a farm in Oregon, his experiences with livestock made him a natural for success in Hollywood. Check out more about Pete at www.petefreeland.com or hunt him down on IMDb for the latest info.