Money Talks: Navigating unemployment two years into the pandemic

In April 2020, we reached out to screenwriters Ryan and Julie (pseudonyms) to find out how the entertainment industry was coping with the still-nascent pandemic. Ryan was making $18 an hour before he was laid off; Julie earned $16.50 in a union-protected job. Now that Hollywood is effectively back in business, we reconnected with Ryan and Julie, now 41 and 34, to find out how Covid-19 has changed the industry – and how those changes have affected their lives and their finances.

Ryan: I was unemployed until October 2020, just when the end of the extra government money for unemployment disappeared, and I got a call for a job. It expired perfectly for me. I got hired as an assistant showrunner for my old boss, and ended up working there for a year. It was a year of income, and I ended up being promoted to writer. I ended up earning 14 weeks as a writer, five times what I earned as an assistant.

Things were fine for a while after that!

Julia: For you. I had almost the opposite situation. A few days after he returned to work, I was fired. We continued to do our show remotely until October 2020 – and a lot of other shows, after those first few months, were able to come back with certain protocols in place, but the show I was on closed its room. writers in October.

I didn’t work long after that. I was unemployed, but it was just regular unemployment – didn’t get the boosted version.

It was a long, sad and depressing time. In July 2021, I landed a month-long gig because I needed anything. It was four weeks of work, and then I was able to get another writer’s assistant job.

At the time, we received health insurance from my union. Since I had been out of work for nearly a year, we were weeks away from losing our health insurance. I needed 170 hours [of work] by the end of September to keep our insurance, and this job came with, like, a week to spare. It was an 18-week job, and I finished it just before vacation.

Ryan: I finished my job in October 2021, and now we are both unemployed again. Since I was earning this writer’s salary, we were able to save a lot of money. It was really helpful.

Julia: First you were unemployed, then you were working and doing a lot of overtime, so before you even got your writer’s salary, we were able to pay off a ton of debt.

Ryan: Three credit cards.

Julia: We also paid our cat’s vet bill [who had been very ill right before the original interview]. In total, it was between $10,000 and $20,000 in debt.

Ryan: We got the economic disaster loan because I was self-employed. Plus, just being home, not spending gas, and not going out to eat, turns out you can save a lot of money!

Julia: In January of last year, we returned Ryan’s car. It was a lease. We only have one car now, and everything is fine.

Ryan: Less insurance, less gas.

Julia: My car has been reimbursed for almost two years now. We paid for it at the start of the pandemic. We may need another car in the future, but right now we’re saving $500 a month by just having one.

Ryan: Having a car wasn’t really a problem. Most of the time, if we both need to be somewhere at the same time, we’re both going to the same place. It’s only been twice that we need to be in two different places at the same time, so one of us will just take an Uber or the train. I served as a juror for a week and took the train downtown.

Julia: Also, your work was completely remote. I was working on a combo – we had an office, but it was up to me whether I went in or not. We had writers spread across the country, so we were on Zoom anyway. I went there once or twice a week, because I had to go there to test [for Covid-19]. All the tests we are required to do are covered and my summer job provided KN95 masks. I brought a bunch of them home!

Ryan: The gas you paid to go get tested was always less than what you would pay if you had to go to the office every day.

Julia: And my office is pretty close. On one of my previous jobs, I was traveling to a location 45 miles away. That’s 500 gas miles a week. They didn’t pay me anything for that!

Ryan: You lose a lot by not having an in-person writers room. Crosstalk, back and forth – you can’t do that on Zoom because the software doesn’t work that way. On the other hand, since nobody wants to be on Zoom for 10 hours, it really simplifies things. I guess there could be an argument that, you know, “maybe we went with an idea that wasn’t as good as what we might have found in the physical room”, but I don’t don’t know how you measure that. Plus, not having to spend hours in traffic every day – maybe I’ll take it! The TV show is as good as it would have been otherwise, and I’m getting all that time back.

Julia: For me, the biggest loss in virtual rooms compared to in-person rooms is the lack of a whiteboard. This is where the process hurts. It’s amazing how many writers really struggle to see an episode or see a season without that whiteboard. All the ad hoc ways to replicate the online whiteboard just aren’t as good.

Ryan: That’s a lot of information to hold in your head.

Julia: All my job is to keep it in my head, and it’s awful. The rest is fine, but not necessary. You don’t have to shoot shit for three hours to write good television. People believe that, but they’re wrong. The lack of boards is what actually slows things down or makes things worse.

Many jobs disappeared when writers’ rooms were moved away. The production assistant job, which is quote-unquote “entry-level” and is the person who receives the lunches and makes the copies, most of these positions have been eliminated. There is no need for an AP if you are in a virtual room. The competition for the remaining jobs became even tougher, and they were already very hard to get to begin with!

Ryan: Also, there’s a job tier you can’t get unless you start as an AP and work your way up. You are unlucky.

Julia: We’ve had two years now where entry-level writing work no longer exists. So that’s weird. Writers’ rooms have also gotten smaller, which also means less work for all of us.

Ryan: Ideally, I would find another job by this summer. I am unemployed, but it will run out. We have savings, but they will run out.

Julia: The reality of our financial situation is that we have about three months we can wait to write work. After that we have to accept anything. It’s very possible that we could both become assistants again.

Ryan: We’re not just waiting to be hired either. We work on drivers, talk to managers, do things to advance our careers. There is a lot of work that pays nothing.

Julia: The good news is, if we end up working assistant jobs again, they’ll be a lot more livable. I spent part of the pandemic working with Local 871, which is IATSE, which meant I was really involved in a lot of contract negotiations. Prior to the end of negotiations, the minimum wage for script assistants was $16.50 an hour. Now it’s $23.50. It’s huge. From a financial point of view, the return to these jobs is much better than it would have been six months ago.

Ryan: I’d rather not go back to living on credit cards after getting the biggest promotion of my life!

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