IBEW-represented camera operators and other broadcast technicians who work as sports freelancers have been sidelined so far during the Covid-19 crisis, like most of the 4 million Americans who make their careers in the entertainment industry.
     Their struggle and how unions are fighting for workers’ health and economic security were subjects of an AFL-CIO national media conference call last week.

The havoc the coronavirus is wreaking on the entertainment industry was the focus of a national media call last week that included the impact on IBEW members in sports and news broadcasting, and how their union is fighting for them.

Logos of entertainment unions that are part of the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees include IBEW, SAG-AFTRA and other unions representing camera crews, actors, musicians, writers, directors, stagehands and more.

“COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on our sports freelancers as the entire sports world suspended or cancelled seasons,” Telecommunications and Broadcasting Director Robert Prunn said on the AFL-CIO call, which also featured SAG-AFTRA, Actors’ Equity, the Directors Guild, the American Federation of Musicians and other major unions.

Prunn said the IBEW worked with the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees

and affiliated unions to ensure that federal unemployment benefits would be extended to freelance camera operators and technicians, as well as gig workers throughout the economy — the first time that self-employed workers have been eligible.

The call was hosted by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, who has deep IBEW roots beginning as a member and organizer for Portland, Ore, Local 125. She moved on to become an international representative and ultimately assistant to the late IBEW President Ed Hill before being elected to her current job in 2009. She is the first woman to serve as one of the federation’s top two officers.

“The entertainment industry is feeling the public health and economic consequences,” Shuler said in opening remarks. “From Broadway to Hollywood, this virus has paused, postponed and canceled productions, performances and events.”

The result is that most of the country’s 4 million creative professionals are out of work, she said, noting the irony. “As most of us are quarantined in our homes we are relying on their work more than ever to keep us grounded, to provide us with some measure of joy during these very uncertain times.”

Yet, “not a lot is reported on the impact on the talented professionals who are there for us when we need them.”

While their collective work means more TV shows and movies are available than ever, the crisis has stolen the favorite pastimes of sports fans.

For broadcast crews covering sports, such as IBEW members at CBS and Fox Sports, that’s meant no work at all the past two months. Making matters worse, some are running into roadblocks applying for the newly extended jobless benefits under the federal CARES Act.

“We are getting reports from several states that freelancers are having a difficult time applying for unemployment benefits,” Prunn said. “It seems that some states, like Ohio and Florida, are not set up for freelancers and this is causing frustration for many of our members.”

Meanwhile, IBEW is working with employers on a “safe passage to return to work,” he said, noting that the PGA will resume its season June 8 in Fort Worth, Texas, and NASCAR is restarting this month.

“We have created a committee that consists of company and union representatives to create a plan to return to work, with safety as the number one priority, following and even expanding on CDC guidelines,” Prunn said.

His department also is working to ensure that news crews are safe and have all necessary personal protective equipment, whether working in studios or remote locations.

Prunn said some IBEW locals representing regional TV and radio stations report that employers are seeking furloughs and/or temporary reductions in pay, but noted that that in most instances, executives also are taking salary cuts.

Unions understand how high the stakes are for creative professionals, Shuler said, as she introduced the lineup of labor movement speakers on the May 6 call.

“These arts, entertainment and media professionals and their unions have united to ensure that all workers in the industry can access economic relief,” she said. “But here’s the reality: because of the nature of the industry, the arts and entertainment professionals may likely be some of the last workers able to return safely to their jobs.

“And when they do, they’re not going to be returning to normal. It’s going to be a very different approach to the industry. It’s going to change dramatically.”