Several major U.S. TV networks have agreed to paying more than $4 million to settle two lawsuits claiming wage rule violations for workers on many popular reality shows such as Trading Spouses
and The Bachelor.
The suits claimed the networks violated wage and hour laws with their reality show employees, who consistently work more than 80 hours per week without overtime, and claimed to have been denied meals and forced to falsify their time cards. More than 400 staffers were part of the class-action cases which began close to 3 years ago, and some of them stand to gain tens of thousands of dollars in back wages.
The suits coincided with the larger effort by the Writers Guild of America to gain a labor contract for creative workers behind all unscripted TV series, which would include American Idol, Survivor
, and many more popular shows.
"We really found pervasive violations," lawyer for the plaintiff Emma Leheny told Reuters. "It seems to be a system based on the underpayment of workers in an industry where employers are looking to save money and speed up production, create very profitable shows, and the people who are shortchanged are these employees."
Jeff Hermanson, a spokesperson for the Writers Guild, said the violations cited in the labor suits "were just the tip of the iceberg."
"There are literally thousands of people suffering the same abuses," he said. "Not only do they not receive overtime and meal breaks, they don't have health insurance or pensions, credits or residuals."
The Writers Guild included union jurisdiction over reality programs in their demands during their 14-week strike in early 2008, but dropped that demand during the settlement process with the major studios. The WGA now claims that roughly 1,000 reality TV "story-tellers" have signed authorization cards asking for union representation.
Part of the conflict between the studios and the WGA stems from the definition of a "writer" on a reality program. The networks deny that such reality employees act as writers because they do not, for the most part, pen dialogue or construct scripts.
But the union claims that reality employees serve the equivalent function of writers by staging interactions between contestants, creating ample amounts of artifice, constructing dramatic tension and editing hundreds of hours of footage into coherent, compelling (and sometimes fabricated) storylines.
"I hope this settlement provides a disincentive to engage in any future employment law violations," said Leheny, "It sends a message that this section of the television industry can't make up its own rules."
So far, spokespeople for the defendant networks, which includes CBS, ABC and Fox, have declined comment.
-Meghan Carlson, BuddyTV Staff Writer