July 24, 2024

Serene Nest

taking care of your health, Our Mission

Hollywood Writers, Actors Struggle for Health Insurance After Strikes

6 min read

In April, actor Miki Yamashita says she received a health diagnosis that requires surgery to remove non-cancerous tumors. That’s when the performer, who has appeared on Cobra Kai and voiced a character on The Lion Guard, began the race to attempt to qualify for her union’s health insurance plan by June 30. If she earned enough on eligible projects or worked a sufficient number of days by that time, she could be covered by the plan at the end of the year, when she says she needs to undergo the medical procedure.

But meeting the plan’s requirements was going to be tougher than usual to accomplish. For nearly four months of her qualifying period, her union, SAG-AFTRA, was on strike against film and television companies, and Yamashita was barred by union rules from working on many projects. In the months following, production didn’t fully rebound in the Los Angeles area as the entertainment business continued to experience a contraction. By mid-June, Yamashita — who says she has been on the the union’s health plan on and off throughout her career and has sometimes gotten different coverage through outside jobs — was still around $12,000 behind the required earnings threshold. (As a performer who focuses on principal acting work, she says it is less realistic for her to meet the alternative requirement of a particular number of days worked. Yamashita, who is an elected delegate of the union, spoke on her own behalf and not on SAG-AFTRA’s.) “Barring some miracle, I doubt I will actually earn the threshold by [June] 30,” she says. “I will continue to hustle until that deadline comes,” after which she will asses other health insurance options.

More than half a year after Hollywood’s historic double strike officially concluded, other writers and actors are finding themselves in a similar position. SAG-AFTRA performers generally must make at least $27,000 in covered earnings or work at least 104 days over the course of 12 months to qualify for health insurance coverage starting in 2024. (As of 2023, before SAG-AFTRA’s strike, only around 25,000 union members out of about 160,000 met these requirements.) Writers Guild of America members, meanwhile, are required to make $43,862 in covered earnings over four quarters in order to qualify for the Writers Guild-Industry Health Fund; starting July 1, they must make $45,397.

To be sure, the health plans are offering some leniency for participants after the months-long strikes. The Writers Guild-Industry Health Fund and the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan, which operate separately from their affiliated unions and are managed by trustees from both labor and management, are offering extensions of health coverage for one quarter if union members meet certain requirements.

These extensions have provided additional time but haven’t been a cure-all for some members, as the Writers Guild of America West acknowledged in a statement that laid the blame at Hollywood management’s door. “Studio decisions over the past few years have disrupted industry employment: they have cut the number of projects developed and produced, and forced two strikes. The Guild cares deeply about writers who are losing coverage and will continue to fight for quality health care for writers and work with organizations like the Entertainment Community Fund to ensure access when Guild coverage lapses,” the Guild stated.

In the meantime, creatives of all levels are scrambling to meet the requirements. Tracker and Waffles + Mochi writer David Radcliff is $5,000 away from re-qualifying for the Writers Guild-Industry Health Fund. After receiving a coverage extension, he needs to make up his earnings shortfall by Sept. 30. Radcliff, who has cerebral palsy, says, “For someone who uses a wheelchair and uses crutches and has as a lifelong condition, having insurance, especially strong insurance like what the Writers Guild offers, there is a sense of security and stability in that.” He says he tries not to be “overly optimistic or overly pessimistic” as he thinks ahead as to whether he might re-qualify this fall.

William Sadler, a veteran performer who has played roles on Hawaii Five-0, The Shawshank Redemption and Die Hard 2, has been a SAG-AFTRA member since 1977 and can’t remember ever struggling to qualify for union health insurance in years past. A year ago, he says, his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he has turned down jobs since due to a desire to spend time with her at their home in southeastern New York. Meanwhile, there were fewer to choose from during his qualifying period due to the strikes.

Sadler says he is trying to meet his earnings threshold by Sept. 30 without spending long periods away from his wife, who is also on the plan. “It’s a terrible situation under the best of circumstances, but it’s being made worse by the fact that I genuinely feel like I’m under the gun to come up with some job that fulfills this requirement,” he says. “This is not a time to be without health insurance.” At the moment, Sadler says he is planning to take a quick job in Los Angeles that would normally go to a local hire and pay his own way to travel and stay there.

SAG-AFTRA member Chelsea Schwartz (Rebel Moon parts one and two) has been in the union for nearly a decade and on its health plan for most of that time, performing stand-in and background work. She lost her SAG-AFTRA insurance at the beginning of 2024, which she says happened because of work dropping off during the actors and writers strikes. Now, she’s trying to work 65 more days by Sept. 30. That’s been tough amid the ongoing Hollywood contraction: “This is the slowest that I have ever witnessed my industry to be. I probably submit to at least a hundred postings a week, [and] I think I’m averaging four days on set per month.”

A veteran SAG-AFTRA actor who declined to be named but is a lead in a summer movie, meanwhile, is also at risk of losing her insurance and needs to meet her earnings threshold by June 30. “When you’re an actor with a certain profile, it doesn’t feel good to have to say to your agents, ‘Hey, can you get me a guest-starring gig on whatever happens to have somebody my age because I’m going to lose my health insurance otherwise?’ It shouldn’t be like that,” she says.

The situation hasn’t gone unnoticed by casting directors, who in some cases are working to assist actors in reaching their qualification thresholds. Casting director Tineka Becker (The Mysterious Benedict Society, Heist) says that the casting community has a few private Facebook groups where “in the last four years, [there has been] a very obvious and concerted effort to both share information about actors in jeopardy of losing health insurance and to actually try to help the problem by trying to find them roles.”

Actors and writers are also disclosing their qualification challenges on social media. Yamashita posted a video on May 10 that asked for help finding work; that video was shared and liked by thousands on the platform X alone. Since then, she’s been “working pretty steadily,” she says. “I’ve been incredibly humbled and blessed by the outpouring of goodwill.”

Writer Carlos Cisco (Star Trek: Discovery, East Los High) is another worker who disclosed his health insurance situation on X — in his case, he is set to lose his coverage after June 30. He says that his “ship has sailed” now on re-qualifying for the health insurance plan before it expires, and he has applied for Medi-Cal.

Overall, it wasn’t a difficult decision for Cisco to go public. He was inspired by seeing another writer doing the same. “If there’s one thing we all learned from the strike, more than anything, it’s [that] we need to talk about our problems openly with each other,” he says. “More often than not, we share the same problems, and we are not as isolated as we think we are.”

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