Writers that work on reality series – such as Pawn Stars, Doomsday Preppers, The First 48 and Fatal Encounters – are losing up to US$40 million annually in unpaid overtime pay, according to a survey by the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE).
The survey, conducted last July and August, alleges that widespread violations of New York state labor laws are costing the average reality show writer and producer $30,000 annually in “stolen” overtime wages.
The WGAE sent the web survey to 1,266 non-fiction TV writers and producers that have worked for a New York City area-production company in the past six years and 25% – or 315 people – responded.
In the survey, the union argues that growing profit margins for non-fiction cable networks come at the expense of fair labor practices. Networks produce reality shows because they are low cost, the WGAE contends. The average profit margin for a non-fiction cable net is 40%, with the top-ranked non-fiction net, Discovery Channel, having a margin of 60%.
Respondents reported that non-fiction production companies classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees to avoid paying overtime, unemployment, social security, disability and workers compensation taxes.
The survey found that 84% of respondents work upwards of 40 hours per week, every week; 60% work more than eight hours per day, every day; and 85% never get compensated for working overtime. Nearly half said their time-cards never reflect the hours works and more than 50% said they have had to work 80 hours or more in a week.
“I’ve known people to work upwards of 100 hours in a given week while shooting and then had to immediately start writing the script upon return, with no down time, in order to have the script ready in time for the editor,” producer David Van Taylor said in a statement. “There’s no compensation for that additional work, and it’s especially hard when you have a family.”
The Guild added that if writers and producers filed a suit against their employers under New York labor laws, they could win up to six years of back pay.
The report recommends that producers agree to reasonable budgets and production schedules and hire enough staff to complete the production, and urges elected officials to investigate violations of wage and hour laws. It also pushes for collective bargaining and creating a code of conduct for non-fiction TV with input from production companies, networks, employees, elected officials and enforcement agencies.
“These findings demystify the perception that everyone involved in reality TV is reaping the benefits of the genre’s popularity,” said WGAE executive director Lowell Peterson. “While reality TV is no doubt lucrative for networks and production companies, the men and women doing the actual work are finding they can barely cling to the middle class.”
The WGAE has the support of Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), who attended a press conference announcing the survey results at the Guild’s New York office on Monday (November 18).