Healthcare for US Visual Effects Workers

As discussed in the first introductory post and several tweets, this blog was established for the betterment of visual effects artists world-wide. We aim to do this through education and organization, where appropriate.

We feel that organizing with a union is key to success. Together we stand in solidarity with one another.

First, we should state that we are in no way affiliated with either IATSE, IBEW, or any other organized labor group. With that said, this post will be the first in a series of pieces on the benefits of organizing, along with debunking some of the more common misconceptions about membership in a union.

The first issue that we are going to discuss is Health Care. We are aware that those of you at work in the UK and Canada have government systems to rely on, so this is primarily a concern for those working in the United States.

Freelance artists that work in the United States have three options for paying for their healthcare. The first is to pay cash in the event of a medical emergency. The second is to buy private insurance, and the third is to be provided coverage through your employer. If you are 22 years old, you can take a calculated risk. The assumption is that it is unlikely that you will get sick or become injured, so you can probably get away with not having insurance. If you are older, and if you have a family, that option becomes less and less appealing. The costs of medical care in the United States can be staggering. To deliver a child by C-section can cost upwards of US $70,000.00. A stay overnight in the emergency room typically costs $10,000 per day, and the most common cause of personal bankruptcy in the U.S. is unpaid medical bills.

Purchasing health insurance as individuals can be difficult at best. If you are older or have a pre-existing condition (pregnant woman are counted among those), coverage will cost ridiculous amounts of money, in some cases more than US $1,000 per month. Even if you are young, healthy, and without cares in the world, the coverage that you get is going to be minimal and it will be expensive.

If you have secured a staff position or you are fortunate enough to work for one of the studios that actually provides health care benefits to their employees, then you know that you are sitting pretty. Employers are required to provide coverage to you regardless of a pre-existing condition. Employers often subsidize the cost of the health plan, and the benefits often cover quite a bit. The only problem? If you lose your job, you have two options. You can either a) continue to pay the cost of your health plan without employer subsidies, or b) you can buy coverage as an individual. Continuing on your employer’s coverage without their contributions is called paying for COBRA. While cheaper than purchasing insurance on your own, COBRA can be extremely expensive. For further information, here is a link to an article that was written in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the high costs of COBRA.

This is where a labor union comes in. I’m going to focus on benefits provided by The Animation Guild, or IATSE local 839. When you become a new member, participation in the Health Plan typically starts after six months of employment. This gets you health coverage for the next six months. However, health care isn’t guaranteed for life once you become eligible. For every qualifying period of six months, you must work at least 400 hours (10 weeks or 2.5 months) at a union signatory facility. The health care they provide is through the Motion Picture Industry Health Plan. More information on the benefits they provide is available here.

The best part of these benefits? Provided you work the minimum number of hours at union signatory facilities, they are portable, even if you end up working for a non-union shop on occasion. This gives United States artists the security of health care coverage for themselves and their families.

TAG has a very informative page on qualifying for health plans, the Bank of Hours, and more for those who wish to continue reading.

Shame on Digital Domain.

I would like to take a moment to thank VFXSoldier for bringing Digital Domain’s exploitative hiring practices to everyone’s attention. Much has been said on this topic already, but as I repeatedly beat my head against a wall, several thoughts keep coming to mind.

Let’s call a spade a spade here. Digital Domain is making use of indentured servants to complete visual effects work. The definition of an indentured servant is someone who works for free, in exchange for transportation, lodging, meals, etc. for a set period of time, like 3 or 7 years. Here, the reward is a diploma, and the dream of employment working for a major studio. Not a promise, but a hint. However, what DD has done is worse than indentured servitude, because the servants here have to pay for the privilege.

An Indian colleague of mine pointed out that this process has gone on in India for the last decade. So, that makes it OK for it to happen here? John Textor justified this to the Department of Education by saying that this is the only way to keep these jobs from going to India. So, if we can’t beat them, join them? Is that the idea?

When Wyndcrest Holdings bought Digital Domain several years ago, the first thing that they did was take the pirate flag down off the roof. That may have been the beginning of the end. The executive management of this company, specifically, John Textor and Cliff Plumer, have consistently paid themselves well over $700,000 a year, while the company has nearly continuously lost money. In 2010, DD lost nearly $45 million. In the process, they have all but destroyed the heart and soul of this once great company in Venice. I know that margins in Visual Effects are thin, and that owning your own content is key to success. However, just how greedy do you need to be? When is enough, enough? Is it not enough to own your own content? Do you need to now have slave labor to complete your projects?

This behavior is shameful and despicable, and should not be tolerated.

Improving the lives of Visual Effects workers: a list

In my opinion, the best part of the Occupy movement that swept across the globe last year was solidarity. Safety in numbers, really. The concept that by standing together as a group, we can have our voices heard, and drown out the competing voices of monied special interests and lobbyists. In contrast, one of the drawbacks of the Occupy movement was the lack of cohesive message and talking points. The corresponding conservative Tea Party movement had really one unified message: less taxation. That was the party line, so to speak, and it was effective in getting congressional representatives elected who shared similar views.

What I am putting forth here are 5 items that will improve our lives. The Visual Effects Society got something good started with the Visual Effects Industry Bill of Rights. I rather hastily wrote down four items for the “About” portion of this site. Let’s use that list as a starting point, combined with the VES Bill of rights, and elaborate on several key issues.

  1. Fair pay. This is kind of a no-brainer. However, when I read VFX Solider’s post on the working conditions in India, specifically with regard to unpaid internships, I was appalled. Here is what I propose. Every non-supervisory VFX worker, and this includes production assistants and coordinators, should be entitled to hourly pay with overtime. While this will vary from city to city and country to country, VFX workers should at minimum be paid an hourly rate that will assure a decent standard of living for wherever they choose to call home. Unpaid internships, exploitative day rates, “comp time” in lieu of overtime (which, in my experience, is rarely paid out), and delayed payment of compensation should all be things of the past. In addition, as we gain seniority, we should have the ability to accrue sick time and vacation time. When I worked in a supermarket as a cashier, a job that required little to no skill or training, I had all of these benefits. Is it too much to ask that artisans and technicians who are highly skilled and talented be afforded the same courtesy? I think not.
  2. Fair and safe working conditions. Most of the large facilities provide this to their employees. Imageworks, for example, has nice ergonomic desks and chairs, and the climate control is operational and pleasant. However, not all facilities provide this same level of comfort. There are some facilities that operate in dodgy neighborhoods. Due to the hours we work, we should feel safe walking to our cars at night, which isn’t always the case. I have seen all types of smaller facilities. Some are very buttoned up, and some have ethernet cables duct taped to the floor, and exposed wiring hanging out of the ceiling. Pixomondo in Santa Monica refuses to provide adequate cooling and ventilation in their facility, and artists are required to work in temperatures exceeding 90 degrees in the summer time.  In conclusion, if we have to sit somewhere for 12 hours in a day, we should be comfortable doing so.
  3. Portable health care benefits. This is primarily an issue in the United States and emerging markets. As a lot of you know, most facilities do not offer healthcare to freelancers at all. We are faced with two miserable options: buy your own healthcare, which covers very little and is quite expensive, or, if you happen to be one of the unlucky ones with a pre-existing condition, simply go without. We need a system that maintains health coverage no matter where we work.
  4. Portable retirement benefits. In the United States, you have two options for retirement savings which are tied to your employer: a pension, or a 401(k) plan. I can’t think of a single place that actually provides a pension. Some of the larger VFX houses offer 401(k) plans to their long term freelancers and staff employees, but if you leave, you can no longer contribute to the company’s plan. Some houses match a percentage of the employee’s contributions, but this often times comes with a complicated vesting schedule. If you leave before you are vested, which could require a commit of four years or more, you are entitled to either none or a small percentage of the employer’s contribution. A system needs to be established whereby we pay into our retirement savings regardless of where we work.
  5. Elimination of tax subsidy-based employment. Sony recently announced plans to shutter its facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Previously, the state of New Mexico offered a generous tax subsidy to film producers in order to entice them to bring work there. When they abandoned the tax subsidy due to budget constraints, visual effects houses all of a sudden have no reason to do business there, so everything is shut down. There are many people who uprooted their entire lives and the lives of their families to go to Albuquerque, and all that it got them for their effort, in the long run, was a pink slip. Tax subsidies do nothing but hasten our race to the bottom. There is talent all over the world, but it is concentrated in several cities, such as London, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Let’s make sure that film makers use VFX facilities in a city because they require the talents of the artists and technicians in that location, not because they are lured there for financial reasons.

I wish to help occupy and organize visual effects for the benefit of all involved, and these are my demands. I would love to open this up for comment, however. Are the items on this list an accurate assessment of what would improve our quality of life? Have I forgotten something that is equally as important, or made an egregious error above? Please let me know.

When we stand together, we must have the same goals for the group as a whole. Let’s put together a unified front for improving our quality of life.

Online security

As I begin to add content to the site, I wanted to take a moment to chat about online security.

One of the major concerns for those of us who are trying to organize visual effects workers is: what if we get caught? Legally, employers can’t do anything to an employee who is participating in an organizing drive. However, in practice, we all know that employers can certainly make life difficult for those people who choose to stand together and organize. I will cite Wal-Mart as an example.

Let’s make sure and keep our online communication safe from prying eyes. Some things to remember:

  1. If you use your workstation, and your facility runs Linux or Mac, you should assume that every command line action is logged.
  2. Without administrator privileges you can’t install any privacy software, nor can you check to see what is being kept track of.
  3. Instant messenger conversations are logged in many facilities, Sony among them.
  4. Every web site you visit and how much data you transfer is logged.

Creepy, right? Here are some precautionary steps you can take:

  1. Avoid AOL Instant Messenger. AIM traffic is rarely encrypted, so if you say anything over IM, you can safely assume that someone has the ability to read it. This goes without saying, but avoid corporate IM services at all costs. For chat, use Google Talk inside of a web browser, and be sure that you are logged into https://gmail.com instead of http://gmail.com.
  2. Avoid company email. Again, these mails are unencrypted and easy to monitor and track. Use web-based mail, such as Hotmail or Gmail, and be sure that you are using the https protocol so that everything is encrypted.
  3. Try to practice secure browsing ( https ) whenever possible. I have enabled a security certificate for this site, but it will cause a browser to display a warning since it is self-signed.
  4. If you are really concerned about your web traffic being logged, there are several options. The first, and my favorite, is to use a TOR-enabled browser. For more info, check out the TOR Project. This, generally speaking, requires administrative access, so if you bring a laptop or tablet to work, this is your best option. If you are using your workstation, you may have to use a proxy server. Peacefire maintains a list of these, which are free, but have a ton of ads.

Good luck out there, and remember to stay safe!