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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Working Nine-to-Nine

The entertainment industry’s absurd exploitative working hours have been normalized for too long. When production restarts, we need to reject “normal” and demand reasonable conditions.

Before the quarantine, we fell into the same pattern. My partner got home from work around 7:00. He’s a designer. I stumbled home anywhere between 8:00 and 10:30, some nights as late as 11:00 or 12:00. I’m a post-production supervisor, a credit that appears long after your favorite TV program has ended and you’ve instinctively clicked “next episode.”

After a lazy debate over takeout we would defer to one of three restaurants on Seamless, the “repeat order” button just a click away. By the time the food arrived we would slump on our couch and scroll for something to watch while we ate. We’d stay up late, trying to enjoy our night as much as we could before going to bed. The prospect of a restless sleep followed by an hour-long commute in the morning didn’t inspire an early bedtime. 

Some mornings I motivated myself with an at-home yoga class, but more often than not I jumped out of bed 15 minutes before I had to leave. The early morning run I’d promised myself ended up becoming a three-minute sprint to the subway. Most days I missed the train. When I caught it, I was out of breath. 

The workday began with at least 50 “urgent” emails that demanded my immediate response, e.g. an actor discovered an unflattering angle and demanded that we swap out a shot, even though the episode was already finalized. By noon my back ached. By 1:00 my lunch arrived, which I ate hastily over my computer, crumbs littering my desk. By 4:00 I drank another tea, hoping to wake up. By 7:00 my boss would magnanimously offer that I leave and work from home. To most producers, it looked good if I stayed, even better if my emails pinged their phone all night long. 

Before the pandemic, this was “normal.” Faced with an unprecedented health crisis, record unemployment, a teetering stock market, and an uncertain political landscape, it’s not surprising that some would yearn for a semblance of “normalcy.” But my day-to-day never felt normal to me. 

Over the past five years, I struggled to understand why I worked 12-hour days hunched over a computer, just to churn out entertainment for someone’s passive enjoyment. We weren’t saving lives, despite what some self-important show runners thought of their content. What I saw as a job—a tedious series of tasks that stood in the way of friends, family, and weeknight dinner plans—others saw as an identity. 

The mere proximity of celebrity encourages this devout fandom and justifies egregious workplace abuses. Unpaid overtime and obscene hours are expected for non-union employees like myself and, at times, quietly accepted among union members too. The more popular the show is, the less likely you are to say something. The job’s reputation as “fun” discourages us from airing grievances. How could you complain when you’re participating in the “Golden Era of Television?” When you know that there are people lined up at the door just to get your job?

My parents encouraged me to go to art school so that I could “do what I love” and avoid the doldrum of the nine-to-five. It took me a few years to realize that despite having the cool job, most of my time was spent fielding emails, filing accounting paperwork, and maintaining various calendars. Not only that, I was working nine-to-nine. Despite having a Bachelor in Fine Arts, I essentially had the same job as my mom, but with longer hours, zero benefits, and $38k in student loan debt. Far from “doing what I loved,” I was depressed, feeling with each passing year that I was moving farther away from my goal of becoming a director (a male-dominated role that is already elusive for women). Despite my proximity to show runners I admired, there was a literal hierarchical divide. I was a “below-the-line” (implicitly non-creative) crew member, and it is a faux-pas to approach those who are “above-the-line” (screenwriters, producers, directors, actors, etc.) about your work. 

Over the years I’ve come across sympathetic coworkers and support groups (if you want a peek at the bleak reality of post-production look no further than the “How Are You Doing? Mental Health Support for Post Production Pros” group on Facebook). But every time we come close to challenging the nature of our work, we collapse into self-blame. Workers like the anonymous poster below ask, am I having a bad run at this?” My colleagues often think their anxiety is the result of personal weakness, not exploitative practices. That their mistakes are a result of their ignorance, rather than impractical turnarounds. And there’s always the defeated refrain: “that’s just the industry.” 

Anonymous post from How Are You Doing? Mental Health Support for Post Production Pros

While the current moment is fraught, there has never been a better time to challenge this line of thinking. Due to the pandemic, and the uncertainty surrounding its possible easing, the film and television industry is largely at a standstill. The once critical, inflexible release calendars are suddenly in flux. After being told for years that we need to work around the clock to meet impossible deadlines, countless major network shows are suddenly on hiatus. Why? Because it is, however much we might “love” media, a form of nonessential work. 

Acknowledging this doesn’t minimize the importance of entertainment media, an invaluable source of comfort, distraction, and shared cultural experience. Nor does it detract from the brilliant, collaborative effort it takes to make such work. But it should empower us to demand more from our future employers.

Essential work—the work of grocers, health care professionals, truckers, sanitation workers—has fixed deadlines. We need to eat, so the grocers need to restock shelves overnight. We need immediate access to treatment if we get sick. But we’ll survive if Black Widow’s release gets pushed six months. It’s clear now for me and my colleagues that our tight schedules, late nights, and unpaid overtime only served one purpose—to maximize the profit of producers and network executives.

The reality that 44 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past three months is daunting. Everyone’s future is uncertain, yet our bills and debt have remained frustratingly fixed. It may seem far off, but August is quickly approaching and most productions—and many other businesses—hope to be up and running by then.

The race to return to “normal,” even if it’s exploitative and demoralizing, will be staggering. We can expect that it will be ramped up especially in order to divert energy and attention away from radicalizing movements like rent cancellation or the Black Lives Matter protests. In the name of “saving the economy” we’ll be asked to work suboptimal jobs with meager wages, just as we were in 2008. And of course, we’ll all be asked to put our own health at risk. 

Some productions, for example, are already drawing up COVID-19 riders in which they absolve themselves of any responsibility for employees that contract the virus. Per a recent Deadline article:

You acknowledge you are going into a high-density area, and while we will do our best effort to protect you, nothing is failsafe and if you contract COVID-19, we are not liable,” said a source involved in drawing up these guidelines. “There is no other way we can think of to address this. If you don’t want to sign, don’t take the job.

It’s never as simple as not taking the job, not when you have bills, debt, or a family to support. Asking workers to choose their livelihood or their lives is always a false choice. They will prioritize their livelihood, because the alternative is economic immiseration and possible loss of life anyway. They will risk infection, allowing themselves to become test subjects in the grand experiment of working through a pandemic. 

Health hazards aren’t limited to those with in-person jobs either. A large swath of the workforce is now working from home. Companies like Twitter and Square have even offered to make that move permanent. But as any remote worker will tell you, working from home isn’t the luxury it’s made out to be. 

A colleague of mine was in post-production on a series when COVID-19 hit NYC. Like thousands of other workers, they were asked to work from home. Since then, they have gotten little sleep or exercise. Their bicoastal team (typical in our Los Angeles/NYC dominated industry) keeps them awake all hours of the night. Just last week, they clocked nearly 100 hours on their timecard. All of this because the network refused to push the release date of the series—during a pandemic, no less. So while my colleague’s movement was already limited by stay-at-home orders, their misery was exacerbated by the breakneck pace of their job. 

It is up to workers to unanimously reject this. Not only that, we need to ask for more than we’ve been conditioned to expect. We need to dramatically shorten the workday and demand a four-day workweek. If this moment has proven anything, it’s that the 60- to 100-hour work week is a social construct, not some preordained mandate. For film workers specifically, production timetables need to be overhauled to meet the demands of our lives rather than the limits of production budgets. Not because policy wonks praise the idea in the name of “productivity,” but because it undoubtedly improves our physical and mental health. In order to move forward as an industry, we need to retire the notion that strenuous work creates good content. The idea that stress and sleep deprivation are integral parts of the job is medieval. Excessive work hours don’t ensure strong working relationships; they lead to their eventual breakdown. We can surely make good work and cultivate camaraderie without working ourselves to the point of exhaustion. Anyone who argues otherwise is benefitting from our surplus labor. 

As a nation, we need to follow France’s lead and institute a labor law that ensures our “right to disconnect” from email and smartphones after hours. I start each new show with the intention of disconnecting from my various devices after work. But inevitably there’s a problem. An early morning meeting is rescheduled in the middle of the night, and I didn’t check my phone during my commute to inform my team of the change. This so-called oversight sends a ripple of miscommunication across several departments, which results in my reprimand. Somehow, I’ve made a mistake before my work day has even begun. It’s clear that film workers can’t enforce these demands on their own. In order to implement these necessary changes, unions need to be expanded. Managerial roles like production assistants, coordinators and supervisors need to be immediately included in the Editor’s Guild, the union that represents some post-production workers, but not others. For years we’ve been told that these lower-level assistant, coordinator, and supervisor positions—which are primarily made up of women—are entry-level and undeserving of organization. The truth is that people make careers out of these jobs and arguing otherwise diminishes the crucial role they play in our industry. 

It is without question that the unions need to be strengthened as well. In the five years that I’ve worked on union projects, I’ve never seen a union delegate in my office, despite the fact that my teams are composed of union editors and assistant editors. A union is utterly toothless if it doesn’t exercise oversight. If there isn’t a physical presence mediating between the production and its workers, union members are going to be too intimidated to report abuses. 

At the start of the pandemic I got back into running. Before my run, I would stretch for a leisurely 20 minutes. Mid-run my breath was more measured, my stride sturdier. I saw people on their stoops, neighbors I had never seen before and could only imagine prior to this. I tracked the slow unfurling of flora, smelled the ripening of magnolia trees. When I returned home my partner cooked us dinner—the days of sparse, dehydrated groceries in the fridge behind us—and we ate at our kitchen table. With my partner still employed and my family healthy, I had the privilege of taking a moment to rest. To develop new hobbies and rehabilitate old ones. A moment, frankly, to be human.

It would be foolish, even reckless, to say this moment is without unprecedented duress. We all have friends and family members who are immunosuppressed and still vulnerable. We may even be mourning the loss of a dear friend, parent, grandparent, or colleague. But we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge and act on the emancipatory potential of this moment. The pandemic has cracked open our world, making it apparent to everyone that we have a broken healthcare system, a housing crisis, and most notably, a racist police state. As we strive for a better world, we have to dismantle our toxic work culture as well, allowing everyone the freedom, leisure time, financial ability, and physical safety to just be human. 

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