WGA Introduces New Health Care Demands That Could Prolong Strike

The Writers Guild introduced new demands on Friday that could prolong the three-month strike even longer.

The demands include a point that the companies agree to “a health care benefit extension” that would give striking writers more time to qualify for the health coverage that many face losing because of a lack of earnings during the work-stoppage.

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Friday’s meeting was held to discuss terms for a possible return to the bargaining table. But instead of bringing them closer to a deal to end the strike, it may have only moved them farther apart.

Under the old contract, writers had to earn at least $41,773 a year to qualify for health care coverage. But with three-months – and counting – of earnings already lost because of the strike, writers will have less time to attain that earnings threshold once the strike is over.

According to a statement released by the guild last night, Ellen Stutzman, the WGA’s chief negotiator, “made clear” to the AMPTP that “in addition to a comprehensive response from the AMPTP on our proposals in all work areas, we will need to address issues arising from the strike, including a health care benefit extension” and “additional” funding to the guild’s Pension & Health Fund.

Up until now, the WGA’s only health care proposals on the table had been for each member of a writing team to receive pension and health contributions as if they were writing as an individual – a perennial demand that the companies rejected; and for the guild to have the option to divert 0. 5% of any negotiated minimums increases to the P&H Fund, which was one of the few issues on which the two sides had managed to reach a tentative agreement before the strike was launched on May 2.

The frequently asked questions page of the WGA’s strike site notes, “There is no Health Fund requirement that the Health Plan extend health insurance coverage during a strike, and Trustees are 50% management and 50% Guild. If you fall out of coverage during the strike, extended benefits may be available under COBRA.”

Loss of health coverage is a problem for all industry workers during strikes. Last month, IATSE president Matt Loeb urged the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans – which cover IATSE and other below-the-line workers – to grant an easing of the Plans’ eligibility requirements, which the Plans’ board of directors has now improved in order “to help participants and dependents affected by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.”

SAG-AFTRA has been on strike since July 14, and its members are also facing the loss of health care coverage. SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said in a recent podcast that, “As far as health and pension go, eligibility requirements are going to remain the same” during the strike. “We would love to adjust those requirements, or make special exceptions, however, as many of our members undoubtedly know, the Pension & Health Plans are run by a joint board of trustees, half of which are controlled by the studios and streamers – the management-side trustees – so there is no vision on the horizon where we can get these management trustees to agree to make adjustments to the eligibility requirements.”

A health care benefit extension and additional funding for the WGA’s health plan are not the only new issues arising from the strike itself that the WGA says will have to be addressed. On Friday night, the WGA said that Stutzman also “made clear” that any new deal will also need to address “reinstatement of striking writers, and arbitration of disputes arising during the strike. We will also seek the right for individual WGA members to honor other unions’ picket lines as they have honored ours during this strike.”

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