EXCLUSIVE: In a story with a happy ending before the holiday weekend, NBCUniversal has stepped up to help disenfranchised employees heavily impacted by the ongoing WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.
Non-union crew members, including production assistants, are among the most vulnerable during the work stoppages as they generally don’t have free access to the funds Hollywood guilds have set up to assist struggling members.
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Already having to rely largely on unemployment benefits for income, non-union employees on NBCUniversal shows got more alarming news Wednesday that came as a surprise to many: they were notified that their company-subsidized health insurance was being cut off the next day, August 31.
A number of affected employees reached out to Deadline to describe the desperate situation they’d found themselves in, having less than 30 hours to find new coverage or pay quadruple their monthly cost to retain their current insurance. The predicament is particularly difficult for staffers with families, including children, who are on their policies.
One employee claimed that the website to access their insurance info was already locked by the time they received the notification, leaving them no time to set up a new policy before the deadline to continue coverage in September.
Alerted to the issue by Deadline, NBCU looked into the matter. According to sources, an outside insurance company, contracted by NBCU for its employee health coverage services, handles the usually automatically generated employee notifications. It is unclear whether people were not given heads-up about the expiration of the bridge health insurance coverage ahead of time or if that was not communicated clearly in the summary of benefits they likely received at the start of the 13-week term.
Regardless, NBCU — which is believed to have the most generous standard policy for post-wrap health insurance — has now extended the non-union employees’ subsidized coverage far beyond any other studio.
Within the next few days, the affected staffers, believed to be close to 100, will receive a letter informing them that their health insurance has been extended through the time any of them resume work on a Universal Studio Group production (if the strikes end) or the end of the year, whichever comes first, I hear.
With the decision, the company is looking to make things right for some of the people at the lowest income levels in production. Since NBCU also provides COBRA, if any of the staffers signed up for that, they should be able to switch back, I hear. It will be trickier for those who have committed to another private insurance.
The incident underlines the increasing hardship crew members face as Hollywood’s production shutdown is stretching into a fifth month amid the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. It also highlights the differences in studios’ level of commitment to helping employees with healthcare coverage.
Interestingly, it is traditional media companies — which are hit disproportionately hard by the strikes while providing historically better residuals, larger, full-time writers rooms and producing experience for writers — that also deliver more on health insurance.
NBCU is said to lead the pack with its longtime policy that extends subsidized health insurance for non-union employees on its union TV shows for 13 weeks after wrap of production, rounding it up to the end of month during which the 13-week mark hits.
The procedure was applied during the strikes, too, with health insurance coverage extended through end of August, four months after the start of the WGA work stoppage shut down most TV production.
It is not exactly clear why the expiration of the 13-week window caught employees by surprise, even without proper notification, with the extenuating circumstances of the strikes likely to blame.
Typically, within the 13 weeks after a show wraps, the vast majority of staffers have moved on to another job within USG or at another studio that comes with insurance provided by their new employer. Exacerbating — and magnifying — the current problem is the fact that, amid the industry shutdown with no other TV production jobs to go to, every non-union employee who had opted for NBCU-provided health insurance likely used up the entire term, sending a slew of people scrambling to find last-minute coverage when it came to an end.
Elsewhere, I hear CBS Studios actually beefed up their regular benefit, which allows non-union employees to receive up to four weeks — and on some occasions up to 6-8 weeks — of coverage post-production wrap.
Taking into the account the extraordinary circumstances of the strikes, I hear CBS Studios expanded coverage to 13 weeks of insurance/benefits for non-union crew on union shows impacted by the work stoppage. The employees were regularly informed about the timeline of their bridge coverage, which also was up at the end of August, I hear.
Warner Bros. Television is another studio that traditionally had offered additional coverage. Non-union employees that choose to participate get the remaining days of the month production concludes/they are laid off in plus one additional month of COBRA paid for by the studio.
While researching this story, I found no other major studio — including the leading streamers — that offers sponsored health insurance coverage beyond the bare minimum.
I hear most of those studios/streamers have an agreement with EP Cares, which provides health insurance benefits to non-union production workers. The media companies contribute to the coverage, which runs through the end of the calendar month in which the project wraps/is shut down or their employment is terminated.
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