IATSE Responds to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Plans to Give RSN Freelancers Advances

The labor union calls the terms of loan payback onerous

The IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) has responded to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s plan to provide interest free advances to freelancers working for Fox Regional Sports Networks and Marquee Sports Network while live sports is been shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The IATSE said the terms of the deal were unacceptable when compared to other sports networks response to the crisis.

Sinclair has established a multimillion-dollar emergency fund to offer financial support to nearly 1,000 eligible freelancers who work at its RSNs. As part of the fund, all eligible freelancers will be able to receive an immediate $2,500 interest-free advance beginning on Friday, April 3. The $2,500 interest free advance is for eligible freelancers who have worked regularly on a regional sports network’s games in a home market last year. The advance can be made up in small deductions once the games return.

The full statement from IATSE is below:

As sports broadcast technicians were heading into two of their busiest months, COVID-19 took hold of the nation. First the NBA came to an abrupt halt after players tested positive. All other sports immediately followed.

The result: 100% of the TV sports broadcast workforce is now unemployed. For every game cancelled, about 50 broadcast techs lost a job. These technicians are not salaried. They are paid per event. No events, no money.

Many networks, including FOX, ESPN, Turner, CBS, and NBC have committed to paying production crews hired for the now-cancelled NCAA Basketball tournaments, several PGA events, and/or regional sports which were scheduled for the near future. Many of these companies are paying cancelled shows through the middle of April. Sinclair Broadcast Group decided to do things differently.

Sinclair announced late on March 24 a plan to loan some of their broadcast employees up to $2500. Sinclair Broadcast Group is a multi-billion-dollar company and, according to its own website, “one of the largest and most diversified television broadcast companies in the country,” yet the best it can do is offer a pay advance to its now unemployed workers.

“Sinclair is the largest operator of Regional Sports Networks,” said Fran O’Hern, Co-Director of Broadcast for the IATSE, which represents workers in a dozen markets where Sinclair- owned RSNs operate, “yet they seem to be doing the least for their employees. I’m reminded of the times when companies would pay their employees in scrip, which could only be used at the company store”

“We refuse to believe this is the best it can do, said Leslie Fitzsimmons, IATSE Local 414 Vice- President. “Sinclair reported an 80-plus percent year-over-year increase (fourth quarter 2018 to 2019), “Sinclair’s CEO made $7.5 million last year. We’ve lost all our income. We need help. Not only that, we are losing out on our health contributions, which puts our ability to maintain coverage at risk. It’s a double whammy.”

The terms of payback are onerous. Employees who take advantage of the offer will have to give back half their wages, up to $250.00, per event worked starting when they return to work. That means that, when they return to work, those employees who take advantage of the offer will lose a significant portion of their income just as they are trying to get back on their feet. “The offer comes up a bit short,” said IATSE Local 796 President Eric Norberg. “It is a bad deal unless you need to feed your family. It is a last resort.”

Also troubling is that technicians first heard about this from a late evening press release. “Sinclair’s lack of communication with the workforce is a major contributor to the anxiety amongst the crew,” added Will Tinsley, President, IATSE Local 414. “And after all, why would we want to be in debt to an employer that won’t speak with us directly?”

“Workers understand that for Sinclair to pay for games that have only been postponed and not officially cancelled could be an expensive bill,” Erik West, IATSE 414 Business Agent, said. “However, RSNs like Fox Sports Wisconsin have been re-airing previously-played games and promoting those re-airs. That means that FS Wisconsin, which continues to collect subscribers’ fees from cable companies, can put sports on their networks without having to pay for production in this case. That’s a nice chunk of revenue – and we get offered a loan.”

“Other broadcasters are adopting more effective measures,” states IATSE Broadcast Department Co-Director, Steve Belsky. “The NBC RSNs committed to pay all its Home Show employees for their booked/cancelled days through mid-April, including benefit contributions. And while AT&T / Warner Media just set up a $100 million fund for its studio-based (film and television production) crews, we’re told they have plans in the works to assist the RSN crews as well.”

In the meantime, TV broadcast technicians across the country find themselves in a unique position, sitting at home and watching games they produced, knowing that their employer will be paid even though they may not.