In 2003, 2782 actors who worked as extras regularly earned enough to qualify for benefits. In 2011 that number dropped to 905, a decrease of more than 67%. However, the reasons for the drastic change aren’t just for lack of work — in 2004 SAG raised the minimum earnings qualification for basic health coverage from $7500 a year to $11,000. By 2011 that requirement had been raised to $14,800, which kicked dozens of actors off the health benefit rolls.
Television extras have been hit hardest with the lack of work after SAG merged with AFTRA in 2012. As Deadline notes, according to SAG-AFTRA network television contract, “producers only have to pay union wages — $148 a day for SAG and 3% more for AFTRA – to the first 21 extras and one stand-in hired on the West Coast, and to the first 25 extras plus all stand-ins on the East Coast. After that, they can employ as many nonunion extras at minimum wage as they like.” In other words, producers tend to hire nonunion extras in order to keep production costs down. While this helps put more work in production, at the same time union extras often find themselves squeezed out of work they need to maintain their benefits. Since an increasing amount of films and television shows are now shot outside of union Background Zones (which only cover certain major west coast and east coast cities, their surrounding areas, and Hawaii), producers are increasingly not required to hire union extras.
Perhaps the biggest issue is that when the unions merged they did not merge their health plans. This means that if an actor gets paid $15,000 or more for acting work he or she still might not qualify for health benefits if that work is split across the two contracts. Although the qualifications are set to change on July 1 of this year, it isn’t clear how much this will help actors as long as the pension and health plans remain separate and force their earnings to be divided.
SAG-AFTRA will begin negotiating new film and TV contracts on May 5, and because of these issues hundreds of low-earning members will be hoping for a change in the way the minimum qualifications for benefits are set. It’s just one of many issues that the union still has to confront in the wake of its 2012 merging.