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.