The Writers Guild of America is preparing to file California labor board complaints against producers and possibly networks in a new effort to unionize story shapers on reality series, guild insiders said.
The complaints could result in a state investigation of production companies, hefty fines for producers and back pay for disgruntled reality show “story editors” who claim they were forced to work upward of 80 hours a week and forge their time cards.
A labor board complaint represents a new battlefront in the WGA’s effort to unionize reality show workers. The move could provide quicker restitution to writers than previous strategies, none of which have yielded any compensation to this point.
The WGA has backed two lawsuits filed last year against Fox Broadcasting, CBS, TBS, The WB and several production companies alleging violations of California labor laws.
The complaints allege that workers with titles such as “story editor,” “field producer” or “story assistant” are told to write reality shows by drafting pre-production episode outlines, then craft story lines by sorting through hundreds of hours of footage.
The lawsuit claims workers are paid low flat-rate salaries, worked excessive hours without breaks and ordered to forge their time cards.
The WGA planned the California labor board filings as a surprise attack and declined to comment for this story. The guild is trying to find as many such reality show workers as possible to jointly complain and assemble evidence such as altered time cards, sources familiar with the plan said.
Dean Fryer, spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, said that if an investigation is warranted, the department will send investigators to production company headquarters to review internal bookkeeping and contact current and former employees.
“If employees are not paid overtime, we will require the employer to compensate them,” Mr. Fryer said. “If they were not provided meal periods, there is a penalty for that. If time cards are being altered, there are penalties for that. The penalties could rack up quite substantially. Depending on the degree, there also could be interest from the local district attorney’s office.”
Mr. Fryer said that a labor board complaint can take several months to investigate. But he noted that’s still much faster than a typical lawsuit.