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Did CBS backpedal on overtime pay plan? Why assistants are fuming

Anousha Sakoui, Stacy Perman
Assistants were in an uproar Tuesday after they received an email saying CBS Studios would no longer issue overtime pay for hours they worked.  (Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg)

The backlash was swift.

Early on Tuesday, CBS sent out emails to assistants working on shows from affiliated producers informing them that the studio was no longer going to pay for overtime and that it was retroactively cutting overtime hours already approved and submitted.

The news spread like wildfire after recipients shared screenshots of the emails on social media, broadcasting their dismay about a move that was estimated to cut their pay by some 30%.

Just hours after the furor erupted, CBS issued a correction. A second email was sent out to assistants working for producers and writers with deals at CBS Studios that were targeted with the original emails to "correct" and "clarify" the initial notifications. CBS said there was, in fact, no plan to cap hours or retroactively change pay, according to emails reviewed by The Times.

"It was a mistake and it has been corrected,” a network spokesman said via email.

At a time when Hollywood production has ground to a halt, leaving tens of thousands of workers unemployed, the initial notice triggered panic among assistants, some of whom said they could lose more than $400 in weekly pay. Many earn close to the minimum wage.

"I immediately went into panic mode," said one assistant, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. "My mind raced with worries about rent, car payments, student loans, everything. Most assistants, myself included, don’t make enough money to be able to save for times like these, so it feels terrible to have that rug pulled out from under you."

Hollywood studios and media conglomerates face mounting losses as a result of stalled productions and many may be looking at ways to cut costs. Theater chains and other companies have already had to reduce staffing.

“I don’t necessarily believe this was an error," said another assistant who asked not be identified. "I just think they didn’t expect any blowback.”

Screenshots of the emails first surfaced on Twitter, with writers sharing them using the hashtag #payuphollywood, an online movement that has been fighting for the rights of Hollywood assistants in recent months.

The furor began Tuesday morning when a CBS Television Studios development analyst emailed a group of assistants notifying them that for the week ending April 4 they would be paid for 40 hours — even if they had approval to file for more. Overtime from the previous week, ending March 28, would be cut to 52 hours, according to emails. An executive in production then sent out a second email stating that "starting 4/4/2020 all time cards should be turned in with only 40 hours," adding that no overtime would be approved.

By Tuesday, afternoon, however, CBS human resources executive Ellen Goldsmith sought to "correct" and "clarify" the earlier communications. Goldsmith said there were, in fact, no such plans to limit or cap the hours to 40 hours per week for assistants working for producers.

"We are continuing to require written pre-approval for any hours worked in excess of 52 hours per week," Goldsmith wrote. She added that workers would be paid in accordance with California law and "there has been no instruction or intention to reduce your pay for hours worked retroactively."

Under California law, employees must receive 1 1/2 times the regular rate of pay for all hours worked over eight hours in any workday and over 40 hours in the workweek. It is also illegal to retroactively change compensation.

"We’re glad that CBS has clarified that rumored cuts to assistant pay were erroneous," said writers Liz Alper and Deirdre Mangan, the two activists who founded #payuphollywood, in a joint statement. "With shelter-in-place restrictions across the world, viewers are turning to broadcast and streaming in record numbers. Now is the time for studios and networks to be stepping up to protect their most vulnerable employees. We risk losing a generation of creatives who include those from underrepresented groups that can not afford more exclusion."

The group has been raising money through GoFundMe to provide stipends to those in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

"We urge all corporations to continue paying support staffers their full wage and preserve Hollywood’s current class of apprentices,” they wrote.