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Sidelined Movie Workers Worry About Losing Health Benefits During Coronavirus Crisis

Before movie theaters went dark and Hollywood film and TV productions were shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, Amazon was shooting its new billion-dollar Lord of the Rings series in New Zealand. James Cameron was there working on four sequels to Avatar. In London, Disney was about to begin filming its new live-action version of The Little Mermaid. And Warner Brothers was in Europe shooting The Matrix 4 and The Batman.

The shutdown affects 300,000 workers, like Kymm Swank, who had been working in Los Angeles as a camera assistant on the ABC sitcom Schooled. She says production crew members are a unique workforce.

"We're not independent contractors, we're not traditional full-time workers," she explains. "Our jobs are relatively short-term. So traditional emergency leave benefits are things that we can't always qualify for."

Swank says she considers herself lucky because she has some savings. But she worries many won't able to work the 400 hours every six months needed to qualify for health care benefits.

"During a pandemic, the thought of potentially losing your health care because you can't work is terrifying," she says.

"The last thing you want in a health care crisis is fewer people with health care benefits," agrees Rebecca Rhine, the national executive director of the International Cinematographers Guild local 600, which includes camera operators, still photographers and publicists.

The guild is the largest Hollywood local. It's part of a larger union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which is trying to help 120,000 members now out of work. IATSE is lobbying for its members to be included in any federal and state emergency relief aid packages.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.