One reason the August employment report wasn’t stronger: Television and movie production has largely halted since a deadlock in contract negotiations between major studios and unions that represent screenwriters and actors.
The motion picture and sound recording industry subtracted 16,800 jobs in August. That’s not a huge share of its approximately 438,000-person work force, but it underestimates the total impact of the labor stoppages, given how much spending power the film industry creates in Los Angeles specifically.
The shutdown started when 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America went on strike in May. In the second quarter alone, according to Los Angeles’s film office, activity was down 28.8 percent from a year earlier.
The stoppages spread when SAG-AFTRA, which represents more than 160,000 actors and broadcasters, struck in July after its contract with the largest film and television studios expired.
Striking actors and writers, however, don’t translate one for one into payrolls. For one thing, many of SAG-AFTRA’s members work for television news stations and aren’t on strike. Those who do act in movies and TV shows usually sign contracts, sometimes for a day or a week, rather than entering into a continuing employment relationship.
Between intermittent gigs, they’re used to taking second jobs, like waiting on tables or designing websites. During the strike, they’re also allowed to work in theater and commercials, as well as on a handful of independent projects that have agreed to abide by the union’s demands.
Even with no work, most earn at least some money through residuals — although that revenue has shrunk with the rise of streaming, and will fade as the months drag on.
“We’re used to being freelancers, and just being able to go along,” said Jodi Long, president of SAG-AFTRA’s Los Angeles local. “For now, what’s really going to affect the job market is the people on set — the hair and makeup people, the gaffers and the grips and the people in production.”
Ms. Long is right: The support services required to make movies and shows have largely shut down. Some serve other industries as well, but many have grown up around the needs of film production. Even if the industry becomes very busy when the strike ends as studios restock their pipelines, months of income will be hard to replace.
Take Limelight Catering. Its owner, Steve Michelson, mostly mothballed the business in May when the writers’ strike started, laying off 50 staff members, nearly all of them represented by the Teamsters. Since then, he has been repairing trucks and doing other maintenance at his facility in the northern reaches of the Los Angeles area.
“We’re kind of the side effect,” Mr. Michelson said. “We depend on the film industry, but we get nothing out of this. The actors and the writers, hopefully they’ll get a nice raise, but we get nothing out of it.”
Unlike striking workers in California, those who lose their jobs as collateral damage of labor disputes are eligible for unemployment insurance. (New York State does allow workers on strike to collect unemployment checks.)
That’s what most of Mr. Michelson’s workers are doing. Many of those who were in more physical jobs, like carrying heavy cameras and lights around, are using the time to take care of occupational injuries by claiming disability benefits.
Bill Bridges, a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, has worked as a grip for 25 years. Getting through the Covid-19 shutdown was hard enough, he said, and then he needed a year off for a total knee replacement. During that time, Mr. Bridges became licensed to drive a truck, and applied for jobs with the long-haul freight lines — but he said they paid only $650 a week for someone with no experience.
After recovering from surgery, he was able to drive film trucks, and sometimes earned $1,600 a day. That stopped when the talent went on strike. This time, he’s back on disability to get bunion surgery.
Mr. Bridges supports the strikers, but said he was way behind on bills, barely sustaining his wife and 11-year-old son. The union has started a mutual aid food pantry and a GoFundMe appeal for its members.
“This is probably financially the lowest point in my life,” he said. He worries about his own union’s contract negotiations, coming up next year: “If there’s another strike, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”