Corey Leach was excited about the idea of working for Hollywood, even if he lives in New York City. He found out about a job as a parking production assistant about a decade ago — the person who keeps the streets clear of cars and pedestrians when studios do a shoot in a neighborhood and guards production vehicles and equipment while they’re on set. “It seemed like an interesting job, who doesn’t want to work in Hollywood,” he said. “You’re so excited in the beginning.”
But the reality has turned out to be far from glamorous. “Once you realize the reality of it, you say, ‘Hold on, something is wrong,’” he said.
Late on Tuesday night, Leach and a group of more than 100 people who have worked as parking assistants on movie and television sets in New York City filed class action lawsuits against five major studios: Lions Gate, Ratpac-Dune, Sony, Universal, and Warner Brothers. The complaints allege that parking production assistants, or PPAs, were routinely and illegally denied wages and forced to endure inhumane conditions in their jobs. Sony declined to comment, while the other studios couldn’t be reached.
The lawsuits allege that the plaintiffs, who all worked as PPAs over the last six years, were paid flat rates of somewhere between $140 to $160 per 12-hour shift for weeks that averaged between 60 and 100 hours, sometimes more. At the same time, the complaint alleges that if PPAs were called to a site but didn’t work at least four hours, they wouldn’t be paid at all. Leach says his hours sometimes added up to more than 120 straight in a week, yet he’s seen people paid as little as $110 a shift.
The attorney representing all of the lawyers, James Vagnini, pointed out that in other cities, studios rely on police departments to do this kind of work. But in New York, studios pull workers from the same group of non-union, private-sector employees — the only people at a shoot who aren’t unionized. “When you’re skimming 100 bucks, 200 bucks off of every paycheck, it saved [studios] millions of dollars,” he said.
Perhaps even worse than the low pay, however, is some of the things the PPAs say they had to endure on the job. PPAs aren’t allowed to leave the sites for inclement weather, if the site gets shut down, to get food, or to use the restroom. “We’re out there 24 hours, we don’t have bathrooms,” Leach said. “The on-location bathroom is not made available to us.”
The solutions that the employees say they have had to resort to are disturbing. Many wear diapers; others say they had to urinate or defecate into bottles or buckets in their cars. “Holding it when you’ve got to go…over the years that wears on your body,” Leach said. “That’s unhuman.”
“They can’t control it sometimes and just go,” Vagnini added. “It’s embarrassing.”
The PPAs also say they weren’t allowed to leave the sites in the middle of cold winter weather or sweltering summer heat and weren’t allowed to bring in external heaters, instead having to run their vehicles on their own dime, as they are not compensated for gas. “In the summertime, you’re running the car because it’s hot and you need the AC,” Leach explained. “In the winter time you’re running the car because you need heat. But you’re not being reimbursed for gas or anything.”
Some stories are even more extreme. “One gentleman had to have his toes amputated because he got severe frostbite,” Vagnini said. Others reported different health effects, such as bad circulation or back issues, from sitting in their cars for such long periods.
The lawsuits seek to have the workers paid back wages that they say they are owed in unpaid minimum wage and overtime as well as damages, which could include compensation for the health impacts of their working conditions. “I think there will be some additional damages for these individuals besides pay,” Vagnini said. Besides gas, PPAs say they have to use their own vehicles and buy their own food even though other crew are fed. “They’re paying out of pocket expenses that should be paid by studios and it’s coming out of already very low pay. Take that into consideration and they’re probably not making even minimum wages.”
And while it isn’t part of the complaints, Vagnini noted that there is a racial aspect to the issue at a time when Hollywood studios are already under heavy criticism about a lack of diversity, which is showing up in this weekend’s Oscars awards. The people who do these jobs “are predominantly, if not entirely, African American and Hispanic,” he said. “I’ve yet to see any Caucasian individual that this is happening to.”
Leach has noticed the same thing. “From the top to the bottom it’s a predominantly white [business], we’re on the bottom of the totem pole,” he said. “It’s not a bunch of white people coming to this position, it’s a bunch of black and Latino people.”