Tuesday, December 11, 2007
In what has seemed like a season of labor unrest in the entertainment industry, MTV is the latest to feel the pressure. A group of self-described "permalancers"--permanent freelancers who receive fewer benefits than official full-time employees--just went on strike and are picketing the headquarters of Viacom, MTV's parent company. As reported by the New York Times:
Waving signs that read “Shame on Viacom,” the workers, most of them in their 20s, demanded that MTV Networks reverse a plan to reduce health and dental benefits for freelancers beginning Jan. 1. In a statement, MTV Networks noted that its benefits program for full-time employees had also undergone changes, and it emphasized that the plan for freelancers was still highly competitive within the industry. Many freelancers receive no corporate benefits.
But some of the protesters asserted that corporations were competing to see which could provide the most mediocre health care coverage. Matthew Yonda, who works at Nickelodeon, held a sign that labeled the network “Sick-elodeon.” . . .
Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union, an organization of 40,000 New York area freelancers, said permalancing was widespread, particularly in the media industry. Protests, however, are not. “I really think it’s getting to a point where people are not willing to take it anymore,” she said. . . .
The changes to the benefits package were announced last Tuesday. Freelancers were told that they would become eligible for benefits after 160 days of work, beginning in January. While that eased previous eligibility rules, which required freelancers to work for 52 weeks before becoming eligible, it would have required all freelancers not yet eligible for benefits to start the waiting period over again on Jan. 1. The 401(k) plan was also removed. On Thursday, acknowledging the complaints, MTV Networks reinstated the 401(k) plan and said freelancers who had worked consistently since March would be eligible for the new benefits package without an additional wait. Still, other changes continued to cause anger.
Fueled by a series of blog posts on the media Web site Gawker — the first post was headlined “The Viacom Permalance Slave System” — a loose cohort of freelancers created protest stickers and distributed walkout fliers last week. . . . Outside Viacom’s headquarters, several workers held posters with the words, “There’s too many of us to ignore.” It was unclear how many freelancers are on the company’s payroll; an MTV Networks spokeswoman said the figure was not known because it rises and falls throughout the year. . . . Two freelancers and one full-time employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, estimated that the percentage of freelancers in some departments exceeded 75 percent.
As the article notes, although the protests are new, significant use of permanent freelancers to avoid providing benefits isn't. Employers, of course, have a lot of freedom to structure their benefit packages. However, MTV is quickly learning that a major concern of employees is fairness and treating them differently based on an artificial and inaccurate job description isn't perceived as fair. Given the costs involved, particularly health benefits, this problem isn't going away anytime soon. But, companies may be more sensitive about who they cover in the future.