Reality producers violate labor laws, survey finds

HOLLYWOOD — Producers of reality TV shows are flouting California's wage and hour laws by improperly denying overtime payments and meal breaks to most of the writers who work on their shows, according to a survey commissioned by the Writers Guild of America.

The survey, conducted by Goodwin Simon Victoria Research, states that reality production companies and payroll services companies improperly classify writers who work in the industry as exempt from state and federal overtime pay requirements, depriving them of more than $30 million in lost wages.

Among 303 writers who responded to the online survey, 91 percent said they received no overtime pay and 59 percent said their time cards didn't reflect the hours they worked. On average, writers worked 16 hours of unpaid overtime a week. That's an average loss in annual wages of $38,400, according to the report scheduled to be released next week by Goodwin Simon, which conducts research for a number of unions.

"It's clear to us that the wage and hour violations are massive," said Jeff Hermanson, assistant executive director of the Writers Guild of America, West.

The survey marks the latest effort by the Writers Guild of America to raise pressure on producers and networks involved in the reality TV sector to extend union pay and benefits to more than 1,000 writers who work in so-called "unscripted" television.

The status of writers on reality shows is a source of friction in contract talks with the major studios that are scheduled to resume Monday. The main issue for the writers, who have been on strike for nearly three weeks, is compensation for work shown on the Internet, but the dispute over reality TV remains a major sticking point. During the 2006-2007 television season, nine of the top 15 highest-rated hours of prime-time programming were reality or game shows, the report states, including "Survivor" and "Dancing with the Stars."

The union maintains that writers are integral to the success of the shows and that they deserve the benefits and pay enjoyed by their peers who write for dramas and sitcoms. Although reality shows are promoted as capturing unrehearsed and unscripted situations, writers are routinely hired to punch up dialogue and tension for dramatic effect.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers declined to comment on the report. Previously, the alliance has argued that the guild lacks jurisdiction to represent writers in reality TV and should pursue the matter through the National Labor Relations Board, not at the bargaining table.

Reality TV producers previously have dismissed guild claims that they are running afoul of labor laws and have accused the guild of overreaching by trying to represent workers who in their view are story producers and editors, not writers.

State law requires that employees must be paid overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week or more than eight hours during any workday. The law exempts salaried employees, executives, professionals and artists who exercise "discretion and independent judgment" over their work. Yet, the survey found that 95 percent of the respondents did not meet those exemptions.

The union hopes the study's findings will lend ammunition to it s campaign to organize workers in the reality genre. In 2005, the guild backed two high-profile lawsuits in Los Angeles Superior Court against producers of reality TV shows, alleging they violated state labor laws. Those cases are pending.

The union also has helped writers file more than 20 complaints against reality TV producers with the state's labor commissioner. In one recent case an agency hearing officer ordered Nash Entertainment to pay a former story producer who worked on TBS' "Outback Jack" $35,000 in overtime compensation.

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