BURBANK, Calif. (Reuters) – “Interior designer hired for 20 years. Single mother of 15-year-old twins,” reads a sign above a table with cupcakes, cookies and other baked goods for sale. “Stuggling to pay bills, especially my mortgage.”
A prop worker nearby was selling handmade quilts, usually as a side gig, to help make ends meet. The sign read: “I now work two part-time jobs just to barely be able to pay the rent and utilities.”
Signs dotting a flea market in the parking lot described the hardships faced by crew members who had been out of work for months, and the collateral damage of the double whammy that shut down most scripted productions throughout Los Angeles. Hollywood writers left their jobs in May, and actors followed suit in July.
IATSE, the union that represents lighting technicians, costume designers and other film and TV crew workers, estimates that although its members are not on strike, they lost nearly $2 billion in wages after production shut down. The union says members have withdrawn $44 million from their retirement plans to cover ongoing expenses.
“Members are really starting to feel the pressure,” said Dejon Ellis, business manager for IATSE Local 80.
The motion picture and sound recording industries lost 17,000 jobs in August due to strikes, according to US government statistics.
As of mid-September, production losses from strikes were estimated at $5 billion across California and other heavy-production states like Georgia and New Mexico, said Kevin Claudine, chief global strategist at the Milken Institute, a think tank that studies the economy.
Writers and actors can apply for assistance from their unions, and some crew members are eligible for state unemployment benefits.
But that’s not enough to cover basic living costs, many in the entertainment industry say.
Daniel Fox, owner of North Pole Props, was liquidating his entire inventory at the crew flea market. He said his business barely survived the coronavirus, and it was too expensive to stock items that were no longer in demand.
“We definitely waited as long as we could,” Fox said as shoppers browsed his collection of furniture, glassware and other props. “We can’t hold out much longer.”
Deeper debt, fewer jobs
Quilt maker Laura Seaman said she got a part-time job at a fabric store where she buys supplies. She also got to play a monster at Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park during the Halloween festivities.
“I make enough for rent, and that’s it,” she said.
About 65 people affected by the strikes were selling souvenirs, baked goods, props or household items pulled from their own closets, according to flea market organizer Greg S. Gilday.
Gilday, a prop maker, said he was about $2,000 in debt when the writers quit in May. By late August, that amount had jumped to more than $25,000. He had sold a motorcycle and was trying to make more money from his collection of Star Wars toys, old magazines, and other items.
Film and television workers also compete for jobs as cashiers, waiters or babysitters.
Tiffany Buterbaugh, a costume designer and stand-up comedian, said the large number of people affected by the strikes left few opportunities.
“There are no bartending jobs because everyone affected says, ‘Oh, I’ll take any job that’s available,'” Buterbaugh said. “nothing.”
Buterbaugh said she was selling old furniture and clothes collected from her work.
“I’ve literally been a starving artist for many years, so I understand what it means to be pessimistic and do side hustles,” she said. “But that’s really something I’ve never experienced.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom is considering whether to allow striking workers to apply for unemployment benefits. If he signs the bill approved by the state Legislature, the action wouldn’t begin until January.
It is unclear when the work stoppages might be resolved. Hollywood studios resumed negotiations with the Writers Guild of America this week, but no date has been set for talks with the actors union SAG-AFTRA.
Meanwhile, stars including George Clooney, Dwayne Johnson and Meryl Streep have donated millions of dollars to Hollywood charities that help those working in the industry.
IATSE has given $4 million allocated to its members to help the organizations, Ellis said. it has been a long time. She now has a GoFundMe page and runs a food pantry.
“We try not to go into our strike fund because it’s not our strike,” Ellis said.
Hollywood’s biggest names also held an auction to help crew members who lost their health insurance. On display was a watercolor of the winner’s dog by actor John Lithgow and a Zoom session with Nicole Kidman.
Writer Andrea Tyler said she benefited from generous friends offering help. She keeps her car parked and walks as much as possible to avoid paying for gasoline, which is now approaching $6 a gallon.
She eats most of her meals during the day in picket lines, where donated food is available.
“The end of the month always brings a panic of how are we going to get this done?” Tyler said at a sit-in outside Netflix (NFLX.O).
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine) Editing by Mary Milliken and Aurora Ellis
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