CBS typically employs between 500 and 600 IBEW members to work the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which was due to start this week. This year, the broadcaster will honor its commitments to those members despite the tournament’s cancellation
.       Credit: Flick user Phil Roeder

Update, March 26, 2020: Fox Sports has agreed to pay freelancers who were booked and confirmed on shows from March 14 through April 12. Broadcast and Telecommunications Department Director Robert Prunn told members in a letter this week that the network will pay straight time for booked workdays and make the associated benefit contributions. “We appreciate the efforts of Mike Davies, Brad Zager, Eric Shanks, and the entire Fox leadership team for making this possible, and offering relief to impacted members,” Prunn said.

Hundreds of IBEW members hired by CBS for the now-canceled NCAA men’s basketball tournament this month will still be paid thanks to the union’s whirlwind efforts to help protect workers from the financial fallout of the coronavirus crisis.

Within 48 hours of the NCAA’s decision to call off March Madness, the IBEW’s Broadcast & Telecommunications Department secured a guarantee from CBS Sports to cover the weekly wages of the camera operators and technicians who were scheduled to broadcast the tournament’s 63 games.

“We’ve been in constant communication with the companies,” international representative Neil Ambrosio said, referring to contracts with CBS and FOX. “We understood that these are hard decisions for them, but my goal in speaking on behalf of IBEW members was to put a human face on the impact of this.”

He and department Director Robert Prunn said that in talking to CBS, and in continuing to talk to FOX about other events that employ freelance broadcast technicians represented by the IBEW, “we’re continuing to remind them that the sports world right now is unknown, and we need to relieve people’s minds.”

The network acted quickly, they said, led by Patty Power, a CBS Sports executive who works directly with freelancers and their union representatives.

“All the freelancers who work for CBS Sports report to her,” Prunn said. “They have a relationship— she’s not somebody who just sits in an office in New York City. She’s there at the events, and she deserves a lot of credit.”

The department estimates that 500 to 600 freelancers work the NCAA tournaments under the IBEW’s national contract with CBS. Members are represented by numerous locals across the country, including Local 1212 in New York, Local 45 in North Hollywood, Calif., Local 1220 in Chicago, Local 4 in St. Louis, and Local 1200 in Washington, D.C.

Before the tournament was canceled, the department and business managers from the local unions already were working with CBS Sports to protect the safety of members who would be covering the games in the midst of the spreading virus, with new issues emerging constantly.

“As it evolved through each step, there were new logistical challenges,” Ambrosio said. If members couldn’t fly, or didn’t want to fly, could they work games closer to home? How frequently were the mobile units being sanitized and headsets replaced?

“We were proactive in making sure the company was doing the things that they should be doing and making sure that we could update our members and put their minds at ease,” Ambrosio said.

The same conversations are ongoing with regard to IBEW members working in the news divisions of CBS and Fox, he and Prunn said.

Freelancers started learning of the deal struck with CBS via an email from their local business managers on Saturday evening, with a follow-up from Prunn on Monday afternoon explaining that they would receive weekly paychecks as well as corresponding benefit payments.

“The IBEW extends its sincerest thanks to CBS Sports for this incredible gesture towards our freelance members,” the email stated, crediting Power for communicating early with the union and for understanding “the gravity of the impact on our members.”

Prunn assured members that the IBEW is also fighting for freelancers politically, as Congress considers aid packages for workers.

“Our political and legislative affairs department has been working with our department, as well as the AFL-CIO, to ensure any legislation passed includes aid for our freelance workforce,” he said in the email.

"We do not believe H.R. 6201 as passed in the House (last Friday) helps our freelance broadcast members.  Consequently, we are actively lobbying Congress to make sure the needs of our members are heard.”

“I’ve always said that the IBEW and CBS play on the same team,” said International President Lonnie Stephenson. “This decision again proves that we’re committed to working together to help our members – who provide the best in broadcasting excellence – and their families make it through these tough times.”