Capitol Hill got a dose of reality today at a panel featuring entertainment insiders and lawmakers who discussed the perils of the freelance economy and revealed the behind-the-scenes challenges facing professional employees like writers in nonfiction television, as well as temps, subcontractors, and freelancers in nearly every industry, who lack the protections and structures of traditional employment.
Sen. Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota and a member of three unions himself, opened the panel by noting the lack of employment protections he faced as a writer at the beginning of his career. He called attention to important provisions in the Rebuild America Act that would help protect writers and other contingent workers.
American Rights at Work and Jobs with Justice Executive Director Sarita Gupta then moderated a panel discussion with Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers’ Guild of America East (WGAE), and Lee Ellenberg, a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman and WGAE member.
Peterson described how in nonfiction TV, despite controlling their work as a typical employer does, many studios misclassify writers as independent contractors. “The reality of freelance employment in nonfiction TV is that even creative professionals face grueling hours, no job security, no benefits, and no certainty about compensation. Writers and producers in this industry find that, joining with the WGAE, it’s possible to change those conditions, but there is a lot of work to be done.”
Ellenberg shared his personal experience of seeing industry friends looking for work every six weeks, not sure if they would ever receive health care coverage or a retirement plan. He noted how fortunate he was to be a union member, knowing that he would receive proper pay for the work that he did and basic benefits, like health care and a pension, which provide economic security.
Rounding out the discussion, Gupta connected the insights Peterson and Ellenberg shared from the nonfiction TV industry to the precarious situation workers in all types of contingent work find themselves today. She explained, “Until lawmakers are able to modernize federal labor laws, employers will continue to abuse the contingent labor model and lower job standards to the detriment of us all.”
Today’s briefing helped educate policymakers that America’s workers – from writers to housekeepers – need legislative improvements to help the 99%, not just the 1%.