June 20, 2002      


Central Settling

Extras casting company agrees to pay $1.2 million to non-union players in minimum-wage claim.


by Rob Kendt


A cast of thousands will receive a total of $1.2 million from Central Casting's payroll company, Entertainment Partners Group, if an L.A. Superior Court Judge upholds his preliminary approval of a settlement reached between Central and plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuit, filed last year by extras David Heim and Arlie Sego, claimed that Central's practice of taking a 5 percent commission on non-union extras' work resulted in a day rate that amounted to less than the state-mandated minimum wage. The settlement awards cash to all non-union extras who had more than $150 skimmed from their wages between January 1997 and January 2001 (the statute of limitations for such claims is four years). Not receiving money back directly are those who had less than $150 skimmed--or who, in other words, made less than $3,000 in four years--although the amount that would have gone to them is being earmarked for the charitable Entertainment Industry Fund.


In the past few weeks, a series of court-mandated advertisements have appeared in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, and Back Stage West, giving the opportunity for any non-union extra who worked between 1997 and May 2002 to raise objections to the settlement; these members of the suit's "class" have until July 1 to register a response. But no response or proof of claim is necessary to receive payment if the judge approves the settlement at a hearing on July 19. While the total number of non-union extras who worked during that period is estimated at 40,000, just 10 percent of that number--around 4,000--made more than $3,000 in that time, and would hence qualify for back-pay settlement money.


"My attorney advised me that it's a good settlement, but I wish everybody could have gotten all their money back," said Heim, who is now a union member, and whose bookings from Central have not diminished since he filed the suit. "Who knows how much they took in the years before 1997? That was money out of the pockets of non-union, minimum-wage workers."


Heim's attorney, Max Blecher of Blecher & Collins, who filed Heim's and Sego's suit in February 2001, said he anticipates approval of the settlement, and explained that the decision not to return money to lower earners is practical: "The cost of processing their payments would be too great." The bulk of the money will be returned, he said, to "people who do this regularly, sort of for a living," as opposed to more "transient" extras who try it "once or twice." Concluded Blecher: "I believe we got everything we wanted. If we went to trial, it would have been much later. I don't think you can get punitive damages in a case like this; there's a provision for double damages, but it's not clear if it applies here. And frankly I didn't think that prospect justified making people wait for money. Viewed all around, it's a fair and reasonable resolution of the case. The people who were principally injured are getting restitution."


And while a settlement means that the case offers no binding legal precedent, the suit itself has already brought an end to the 5 percent commission. Indeed, it reportedly did so a month before the suit was filed. Central Casting and Entertainment Partners would not respond to calls, even to confirm that they've stopped the practice of commissions on non-union fees.


Taking a commission would seem to be a fair labor practice, since Central essentially performs an agency-type function by garnering work for its registered extras. But on the other hand, Central already claims a percentage of wages paid to extras by production companies--typically, 10 percent, added on top of the extras' day rate, as a "handling fee" for procuring the extras. This practice, then, of adding a percentage fee up front, billed to production companies, then commissioning extras' wages on the back end, is a classic case of "double-dipping," which in itself may not be illegal; had it not run afoul of minimum wage laws, it would likely have continued. (The current state minimum wage is $6.75, which comes out to $54 for an eight-hour day of non-union extra work.)


It was a note in a 2000 edition of Extra Work for Brain Surgeons, the definitive L.A. extras' guidebook published by Hollywood OS, that alerted Heim to the situation. Explained the book's creative director, Carla Lewis, a routine listing for Central's non-union extra policy merely deduced that the commission practice "may" have led to sub-minimum wage pay. As troubled as she was by this practice, Lewis said she was even more troubled by the competitive advantage this double-dipping likely gave to Central.


"It's my belief that Central used that money to bid lower on shows," said Lewis. "When an extras casting director is hired by production, the production pays them based on what extras make: Whatever the gross is, they take 10 percent on top of that." Before the lawsuit, Lewis claimed, Central was bidding below 10 percent. Indeed, in a letter to the unit production manager of Boston Public, dated January 2001--around the time Heim and his lawyers were preparing their case--Central's owner, Carl Joy, announces an increase in its extras "handling fee," from 5 percent to 10 percent for union extras and from 10 percent to 12 percent for non-union.


Heim said that while he's glad for the suit's likely settlement, and for its apparent chilling effect on wage-gouging commissions, he still wonders why he had to file it at all.


"Where was the State Labor Department?" asked Heim rhetorically. "Why didn't they step in? Who enforces the minimum wage in this state?"


Calls to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement were not returned by press time.