Classifying Creativity

Classifying Creativity:

Safeguarding Screenworkers and Enabling Work-Life Balance

Written by Akima A Brown

       The screen industry is a dynamic and multifaceted realm that spans narrative storytelling, nonfiction, and commercial content creation. It is made possible by the collective effort of talented individuals who dedicate their skills and expertise to entertain, educate, and inspire audiences worldwide. However, despite the wealth of joy this work brings to more than 86% of the world every day, it is not without its share of problems – especially as it pertains to worker wellness and overall support.

       Long working hours, irregular schedules, and intense production periods can lead to exhaustion, burnout, and strained personal relationships, posing a significant challenge to work-life integration in the screen industry. These issues have been a longstanding topic of conversation, especially in light of the pandemic. However, an often overlooked yet effective solution lies in worker classification.

       According to a report from the Urban Institute, misclassifying creative workers was directly correlated to the extent of devaluation, mistreatment, and abuse those workers were subjected to. In some instances, the report notes, many workers didn’t consider themselves to be workers at all, but artists – which led to many being taken advantage of with respect to hiring, advancement, and wages.

       Properly determining whether someone is an employee, contractor, or vendor is crucial in establishing the necessary protections and benefits, while also reducing the occurrence of harmful interactions and potential violations of workers’ rights, including instances of libel infractions. It can be the precursor to establishing fair compensation, reasonable working hours, and essential benefits that support the overall well-being of screenworkers.

       Most screenworkers are considered independent contractors. Even small production companies that produce their own projects tend to hire their individuals on a per-project basis.  However, in many such instances, these individuals would be considered employees, or in some cases even vendors, which would afford them very different rights (and responsibilities) on the job.

       At this point you’re likely asking: Just what are the differences between employees, contractors, and vendors? And what are the pros and cons of being classified as any one of the above?

  • Employees Employees are individuals who work directly for a company or organization. They are typically hired for long-term positions and have a higher level of commitment and loyalty to the employer. In today’s screen industry, these are often the people running the business side of a production company, studio, or streaming agent. However, there are some instances in which creatives may be hired to handle an entity’s in-house content creation and oversight. Employees typically have less flexibility in terms of how they work, but in exchange they tend to be afforded more income stability, access to healthcare, and receive employer-provided materials to do their jobs.

  • Contractors Contractors are individuals or companies that provide specific services or expertise to the screen industry on a project basis. They work under a contractual agreement with the production company, often for a limited duration. While this would seem to encompass the majority of screenworkers, there are some gray areas that could change the way these individuals are classified in the future. For instance, contractors are able to choose their own projects, which holds true for screenworkers, but they can also set their own schedules which is impossible for screenworkers on-set. While limited autonomy of schedule and provision of materials by an employer might make employee status seem the most viable option, there are still other factors to consider before such a determination can be made.

  • Vendors Vendors in the screen industry refer to businesses or individuals who provide goods or services that support the production process. Typically, this might include equipment rental companies, catering services, or transportation. However, many screenworkers are small business owners and enter into project agreements via their own entities. In these instances, the production in question has entered into a business-to-business agreement to receive services, with the worker’s business serving as an intermediary between them and the hirer.

       While there are pros and cons in each of these scenarios, there are also distinct rights and responsibilities that can be overlooked when adequate classifications are not applied. For instance, vendors and contractors tend to have more bargaining and wage negotiation power than employees, and employees are usually entitled to care support like sick days and a maximum hours on the clock. On the flip side, employees are often at the mercy of their bosses when it comes to process and efficiency, while vendors and contractors are responsible for their care coverages and accommodations.

       Regardless of our role in the screen industry, it is crucial to recognize the importance of proper worker classification. This issue holds significant weight, not only for the well-being of screenworkers but also for underscoring the legitimacy of screen work as skilled labor. By acknowledging and properly classifying this work, we can establish a foundation that reveres our creative spaces as legitimate workplaces reliant on best practices for worker success.

    By adopting such measures, we open the door to a range of support and accommodations for screenworkers. Imagine a screen industry where workers have access to fair wages, reasonable working hours, paid time off, healthcare benefits, dependent care, job-sharing opportunities, and anti-discrimination protections. These measures would foster a healthier and more sustainable environment for all involved.

     At the time of this writing, the Biden Administration has passed new worker classification regulations in an effort to thwart wage theft, discrimination, and benefit withholdings for contractors who should have been classified as employees. If re-elected, President Biden asserts that their investigation will be expanded to consider non-traditional work, though it doesn’t specify if that will include gig, project, and term workers like those in the screen industry. 

       Beyond the executive branch, however, there is hope that our legislators will take action on the matter. Many elected officials have publicly stated their support for the Hollywood Writers Strike and the IATSE and SAG-AFTRA strike authorizations. Their stances of solidarity with union members’ push for fair contracts and improved working conditions can be leveraged into policy development and reform efforts with adequate support.

       Fortunately, organizations, like ours, are already advocating for these practices and highlighting their positive impact on worker well-being. We are working diligently to collaborate with stakeholders from the public and private sectors to ensure a multifaceted, comprehensive approach to achieving success in this regard. We know that together we can create a better future for screenworkers.

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