Proposed Legislation May Provide California Entertainers with Better Labor Protections

This post is written on behalf of Girard Bengali, APC.

Proposed Legislation May Provide California Entertainers with Better Labor Protections

Entertainment is known to be a brutal industry. In crowded markets like California, entertainers have so much competition that they are willing to accept poor conditions. Long hours, lots of travel, and low wages are typical. Some people accept these conditions as the consequences of doing what they love for a living, but it does not have to be this way.

Legislators in California know this, and they’re working to protect their performing constituents. A proposed new law, the FAIR Act, would give entertainers stronger labor protections statewide. Here’s what you need to know about California entertainment labor laws and how the new law would affect you.

The Current State of California Labor Laws and Entertainment

The entertainment industry is unique because it rarely employs people “full time.” Most entertainers are paid on a contract basis, either on a per-performance basis or for a run of events.

This hiring standard led to most entertainers being classified as “independent contractors.” An independent contractor is seen as a self-employed person, not a traditional employee. That exempted these workers from traditional labor laws. Entertainment employers had the freedom to treat performers more poorly than traditional employees but also made entertainment workers less expensive to hire.

This changed dramatically with the advent of the 2019 Assembly Bill 5 (AB5). This law went into effect in 2020. It tightened up the rules on independent contractors dramatically. The intent was to force rideshare and gig economy employers to hire their workers as full employees, but it affected all 1099 employees in the state.

AB5 states that a company can only classify someone as an independent contractor if they meet three conditions:

  • The employer isn’t hiring the person to accomplish the employer’s main pursuit
  • The activity the employee will do has to be outside the “usual course” of business, not a routine task
  • The person has to regularly do the work the company is hiring them for outside of that contract

Essentially, independent contractors can only remain autonomous if they’re working in multiple locations and not part of a company’s core business model.

This was not well-received by entertainment employers. Actors, musicians, and production team members are essential to entertainment. That meant that they couldn’t be considered independent contractors anymore.

Instead, entertainment employers have to hire these people as employees. That means they need to provide health insurance and other benefits, which are significantly more expensive than previous arrangements. To make it worthwhile, some companies are requiring performers to sign long-lasting exclusivity contracts that prevent them from working elsewhere.

This practice isn’t as great as it sounds. It’s locking performers into contracts that don’t pay them enough to get by. Many studios with exclusivity contracts with actors don’t actually cast those actors in projects regularly. The performers can’t get other work in their field, but their studio isn’t obligated to pay them since they aren’t working on a project.

AB5, the FAIR Act, and the Entertainment Industry

The effects of AB5 on the entertainment world were accidental. That’s why the legislator responsible for AB5, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), has sponsored the FAIR Act. FAIR stands for “Free Artists from Industry Restrictions,” and it’s intended to make artists’ lives easier.

The law is a major change to existing statutes. Currently, entertainers are the only workers in California who can legally be bound to a work contract for longer than seven years.

That’s because of a loophole in the state’s Seven-Year Statute. This law was intended to protect California residents from being trapped in permanent work contracts. However, recording labels convinced the state to add a loophole in 1987 to keep musicians and actors trapped in their contracts for decades.

The FAIR Act would change that. It proposes two significant improvements. First, it would close the entertainment loophole in the Seven-Year Act. This would make artists less likely to get trapped in exclusivity contracts for their entire lives.

Second, it would force entertainment employers to exercise their option to use an actor within a year of previous use. Performers won’t be forced to remain in contracts without pay for years at a time. That should mitigate the negative effects of exclusivity contracts for many people.

The Benefits of Modern Labor Protections

The FAIR Act hasn’t yet passed. However, there are still plenty of protections available for entertainment workers. Despite the drawbacks of AB5, it still makes it easier for former independent contractors to survive.

For example, reclassifying independent contractors as full employees means employers must pay them at least minimum wage. Instead of paying a flat fee, entertainment employers no need to pay hourly wages and overtime. That helps many entertainers earn more money, more consistently.

On top of that, companies have to provide insurance to their employees. That’s made it much easier for newly-reclassified workers to get healthcare. It’s also made it simpler for people to file taxes since they are only responsible for income tax. The performers who haven’t gotten trapped in exclusivity contracts find they’re better able to support themselves post-AB5.

Just as importantly, California employment law gives you the tools to fight back if you don’t receive these benefits. Employers who violate AB5 and other employment laws are required to pay damages to their employees. You can sue them for violating your rights and potentially receive compensation for the benefits they withheld.

Fight for FAIR Employment

The FAIR Act would be an excellent step toward better employment protections for entertainers. Even if it doesn’t pass, you are still covered by California’s other employment laws. If your employer isn’t following the law, you can and should fight back.

The first step to fighting illegal employment practices is to get an attorney. An experienced employment law attorney can help you collect evidence and build your case. Don’t let large entertainment businesses take advantage of you. Instead, fight for your right to fair employment. You deserve to get all the benefits that California law provides you.

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