Freelancing in TV has always been a difficult and precarious career option – and it takes resilience to make it work. Everyone has gone through ‘quiet’ periods. But none of us has experienced anything like the chaos caused by the coronavirus.
Barely an hour passes without news of another production, festival, premiere or trade show that has been cancelled or postponed. From Match of the Day to MIP TV in Cannes, Line of Duty to the new James Bond, Studio Lambert’s Celebrity Race across the World to Coronation Street. Today, the BBC announced it was pausing all its continuing dramas.
TV and film are essentially social activities; they involve going out in the world and interacting with people be they participants, interviewees, audiences, cast or crew. The self-isolating and social distancing required to dampen the spread of the virus is existentially at odds with the process of production.
It’s not just the all-consuming breadth of the crisis but also the speed at which it’s happened: no one – commissioners, production companies, or freelancers – had time to prepare. Although the soaps generally have a few months’ worth of programmes in the can ahead of transmission, for everyone else contingency plans are being put together on the hoof.
And this comes after what for many has already been a challenging six months – a combination of the traditional slow-down in production over the winter months, and the EU-election uncertainty.
If there is a sliver of hope, current estimates are that the crisis will peak in 10-14 weeks, so the worst is likely to be over by mid-summer.
But in the meantime, a lot of people are facing some very difficult times.
With all the other upheavals and disruption, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what one’s rights are, and what support you can get.
So, we’ve put together a simple guide to answer at least some of the questions that many freelancers are asking.
It’s not exhaustive, and the situation is evolving very rapidly, so please do feedback with amendments and updates. In the meantime, we hope this is a useful starting point for freelancers who suddenly find work being cancelled, opportunities vanishing, bills to pay and potential anxieties about their health – both physical and mental.
The production I’m working on has just been cancelled/postponed? Am I entitled to notice period?
First thing: read your contract.
Most production contracts stipulate just 1 week’s notice.
However, according to Bectu, some companies are citing force majeure – meaning they wouldn’t have to pay even that. In such situations, it’s worth calling Bectu or the NUJ to see what your rights are.
Of course, for freelancers there’s always the dilemma of whether to stand up for what’s right, or you may be entitled to, and risk not getting hired by that company again.
If you are registered as a Limited company, and selling your services to the production through that, rather than a PAYE contractor, again, you need to refer to your contract.
One freelance PD who contacted the TM with his experiences was somewhat typical:
He works via his own Limited company. A week ago he was told that a production he was due to start on had been suspended for at least 2 months and, yesterday, that another event – due to start on Monday for 11 days work had also been postponed. ‘’I asked them what their cancellation policy is, which they didn't have an answer for. That’s the best part of £4,000 of earnings just taken away.’’
Although he had received a ‘deal memo’ and PO number from the company, confirming the job, the days booked, the rate and how to invoice them, it makes no mention of a cancellation policy.
"Part of me is reluctant to go too hard [in arguing for a cancellation payment]. I’ve worked for them for a number of years but had to push hard recently for a rate increase to reflect the fact I was working at a more senior level. But is this the time to play hardball and potentially damage the relationship?’’
Anecdotally, it seems freelancers working in High-End TV drama and film are being put on ‘half-pay’ deals – for up to 4 weeks – rather than simply terminated. This is likely to be the longer running nature of many scripted production contracts, and the complexities of them gearing back up for filming again when the hiatus does end. Post production also appears relatively - and we use that word very reservedly - ok. Despite having some jobs cancelled or postponed, most Post houses have switched quickly to enable their people to work from home. In the short term, they seem able to cope albeit with anxiety over the longer term pipeline of work.
Factual, docs and light entertainment seem to be the most adversely affected with rafts of productions being paused or cancelled, and freelancers are given little or no notice.
One suggestion is try speaking to the production company and see if they have any other work you can take on that doesn't require being out and about, or even in an office with other people. Several companies are bringing their PDs back from location and giving them work edit producing, in development or doing research although, of course, that has a knock on for others who might have been hired. The Talent Manager is encouraging companies to offer an opportunities they have as Job Shares - using its new Job Sharing functionality - so that as many people as possible have some form of work, and income.
What are the broadcasters doing?
Of course, many production companies, especially the smaller ones, are in a similarly dire bind – with overheads and salaries to pay, and their income source suddenly on gone.
Both the BBC and ITV say that they are treating each production on a ‘’case by case’’ basis. That is, the productions are negotiating directly with commissioners and business affairs over any financial support they can access, as well as changes to their schedules and contractual delivery requirements.
PACT is encouraging its members to contact them to share experiences and issues, so it can try and coordinate a response but admits that the broadcasters are unlikely to provide blanket on-going support for suspended productions.
Behind the scenes, Bectu is trying to coordinate discussions with major industry employers – as well as asking for the government to step in with additional support.
.. and Government?
Bectu and PACT have issued calls for the government to step in and provide support. Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect – of which Bectu is a part - has written to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, asking for more to be done to "recognise and alleviate the situation of freelance and self-employed workers.’’
Being a freelancer in the current situation can feel very lonely. So if there is a source of solace, it’s that you’re not alone: there are an estimated 5m self-employed people working in the UK – 15% of the total workforce – so the situation extends beyond the creative industries, and hopefully cannot be ignored completely by the government. Although yesterday's unprecedented £330bn intervention did not include any direct help for the self-employed, experts believe some support will be provided.
Tracy Brabin MP is creating a dossier to help the government understand the plight of self-employment; you can email concerns directly to her: Tracy.firstname.lastname@example.org
Can I claim sick pay?
If you’ve been confirmed as having Covid-19 or have taken the decision to self-isolate based on the government guidance, then you will be able to claim Statutory Sick Pay from the first day you are off sick or unable to work. (You used to have to wait till day 4 before SSP kicked in, but this was changed - temporarily at least – in the recent budget.)
If you’re an employee – that is, staff or on a short-term PAYE contract – you are eligible for SSP. You need to have done work for that employee – ie your contract needs to have started; you’ll need to have been earning at least £118 a week; and you’ll need to notify your employee that you’re sick.
The minimum rate for SSP is £94.25 a week, for up to 28 weeks. Usually, you would be paid for this by your company and they would then claim it back from the government. (Some companies will pay you your standard rate and reclaim this lower amount – but you need to check your contract.)
But … I’m not an employee. What then?
Of course, many people in TV and film are not paid PAYE.
If you’re a Sole Trader – and sick or self-isolating – you need to apply for benefits, specifically the Employment and Support Allowance, which is the equivalent of sick pay for the self-employed. As one of their special ‘corona-tackling’ measures, the government has said they will fast-track payments so recipients will not have to wait the usual 5 days to receive this.
If you’re a Limited Company, and that’s how you sell your services and invoice your clients, then it’s your company that should be looking after you. Your clients have no responsibilities for you. In theory, your company can still pay you Statutory Sick Pay (£94.25/ week for 28 weeks) and then claim it back from the government.
I’m not sick or self-isolating but my work has completed dried up
If you are not an employee, you may instead be eligible for Universal Credit or Job Seekers allowance.
The government has released a special guide for those who might need to claim UC as a result of the pandemic. You can read it here - https://www.understandinguniversalcredit.gov.uk/coronavirus/
Universal Credit is far from a straightforward system – as most people will be aware – and the unions among others have argued it’s not fit for purpose, especially in the current crisis. "UC is a system which time and time again has been proven to be unable to cope with any form of change in demand,’’ said Mike Clancy of Prospect. "Asking freelance workers to rely on UC or indeed ESA is simply inadequate.’’
However, the government has, temporarily, removed some of the loopholes, such as the Minimum Income Floor, which should make it slightly easier for those who need to claim now.
Other useful links:
What about Income Protection Insurance?
Income protection insurance (sometimes known as permanent health insurance) is a long-term insurance policy designed to help you if you can’t work because you’re ill or injured. It gives you a regular income until you retire or are able to return to work.
But, like Critical Health cover (which offers a one-off, lump sum payment), it only kicks in if you’re taken ill, and if the illness is one on a specified list. Clearly, its unlikely many policies will now include cover for corona-virus. Moreover, given that corona-virus – for the majority of people – is debilitating for only a short period of time, these policies are unlikely to provide much help.
Is there any other help available?
If you’re struggling – emotionally or financially- the Film and TV Charity may be able to help.
They have a 24-hour helpline - 0800 054 0000
If you’re facing financial hardship you should read the guidance provided on their website and look at all of your options, including the emergency measures put in place by some banks and HMRC, before getting in touch. If, having considered all of your options, you’re facing an urgent and immediate need for financial assistance, the charity may be able to offer one-off grants. You can complete the financial support form immediately. You don’t need to call their Support Line.
With the situation changing rapidly, it’s important to look after your mental health. All the talk of Covid-19 can make us feel even more anxious. You’re not alone. A lot of people will be feeling this way right now. You can ask for help. The charity can provide a listening ear and can also quickly refer you to trained counsellors who can provide more structured support over the phone. It’s important to stay connected with friends and family as well.
If you’re looking for legal advice, emotional, or any other kind of support you’re encouraged to use the Live Chat function on their website rather than calling, where you will reach a friendly advisor who can talk to you about your options.
When there’s a crisis, it’s good to remember that people often come together to support each other and help others out. Doing things in your community can help you to feel like you’re making a difference. As the charity supporting the UK industry in times of crisis and opportunity, The Film and TV Charity is entirely reliant on donations and welcome individual and corporate donations from those who can afford to contribute. Please note that they’re currently unable to provide voluntary opportunities. Donate today or email their Head of Fundraising Tom.Woodward@filmtvcharity.org.uk.
My bills are mounting up and I’ve got no means to pay my mortgage?
The fact that banks are offering to ‘payment holidays’ on mortgages of 2 to 3 months has been widely publicised. However in practice, the experience seems mixed: some freelancers have said it has been very straight forward to secure these ‘mortgage payment breathers’, others that the banks have been less amenable, and requiring proof that you have no means to pay before agreeing.
The best thing is simply to contact your bank and discuss it.
However, be alert: experts have warned that there’s a chance that taking a mortgage repayment holiday could also affect your credit file. They recommend keeping note of any conversations and retain all correspondence in case the lender accidentally marks your holiday as arrears. That way you should avoid any issues when you come to remortgage.
Find out more here.
What about my Council Tax and other outgoings?
The best thing is usually to phone up and be straightforward. Most companies appreciate people telling them if they are struggling to pay bills – rather than having to chase and chase and find out the hard way – and will respond constructively, with advice about reducing consumption (if applicable) or arranging a payment plan.
For example, a number of councils are reportedly agreeing to short term payment holidays for council tax payments.
Everyone recognises we these are unprecedented circumstances and are likely to be relatively short term, and that the best – and only – way for all of us to get through it is to work constructively, together.
Do let us know your experiences – so we can update this blog.
And in the meantime, stay healthy, stay sensible, try not to despair, and let's all do whatever we can to look after each other.