Re: Rule-Making Regarding Young Performers
Mr. Jeffrey Shapiro
New York State Department of Labor
Dear Mr. Shapiro, et al,
The "official response" of my parent union, AFTRA, was transmitted to your department on the 26th of December 2010, and as Chairman of the Young Performers Committee, I personally concur in the serious concerns raised in that commentary. Long ago, at our first crack at up-dating and synchronizing the rules and laws as they pertain to working children in the Performing Arts in the Empire State, we endeavored to provide a "roadmap" for the territory that needed to be addressed. We specifically cautioned all interested parties to weigh and measure the advise offered up to state officials…and who it comes from…in light of the practical realities of film, television, stage and sound recording production as it affects New York state and its children.
This is a “jobs issue.” Onerous regulations and suffocating laws will result in what the Industry calls “Run-away Production.” New York’s most talented children will be adversely affected as opportunities disappear.
I am writing now as the President and Founder of A Minor Consideration," the only foundation specifically formed to focus on young performers and their needs. Our over-arching concern is how to deal with the consequences of participation in an Industry that too often ignores the significant impact on families, education, character development and coping skills on the growing child who has a brush with what passes for success in a very tough business. A Minor Consideration deals with what comes after a childhood spent pursuing a dream.
We are, in short, the only organized band of people who actually participated in this Industry, lived the life, endured the negatives, and lived to tell the tale. We are the people who clean up the messes too often left behind. The reality of what children endure to entertain others is often a shock to the participants, and we call it "the Day of Reckoning." That's the day you discover that your personal reality does not square with the promises made or the true conditions you lived with during your years of labor. We tried to transmit to New York authorities what I will call "the long view" of life in the Arts. To wit:
First and foremost we held that children should not be "punished" for wanting to participate in a State-Supported industry. The Entertainment Industry is important to New York, and children are a part of the mix. When a State offers producers financial incentives for production we urged that the entire process as it involves children...particularly school-aged children...not place an undue burden on parents seeking to assist their talented children in pursuit of employment, nor disadvantage such children who manage to win employment by treating their "work" as a detriment to state and federally mandated educational realities. Specifically, we hoped that any rule-making would end up with a streamlined, local, and inexpensive Work Permit process, and Two, that children who work under such permits and are absent from 'regular school' not be treated as truants under State Law.
Secondly, we urged that local and state officials in all the departments that touch upon the lives of these working children (Labor and Education) recognize that these young people are making a measurable contribution to the welfare of the Entertainment Industry. They are working. They deserve the dignity inherent in Work; namely, that the money they earn should belong to them, that the workplace be safe and nourishing, and that common sense provisions for their "health, safety and morals" be emplaced to insure their welfare, and that a portion of their earnings be set-aside in Coogan Trust Accounts to make sure that upon reaching the age of majority there would be something to show for their labor.
We endeavored to explain how different and varied the actual workplace could be for a child engaged in Entertainment. Theater-Children, for example, operate in a much different world than Background Performers who provide casual and infrequent labor on many film and television productions, or work-a-day kid actors focused mainly on the world of Commercials, or even find employment on Touring Companies. We spoke of the special concerns of the children involved in Modeling and how often that Industry’s stress on physical appearance resulted in eating disorders and drug abuse, a reality with a much higher incidence in Modeling than for most young performers. We also explained the maddening, conflicting work rules among the diverse jurisdictions, which are particularly troublesome for a family in the Tri-State area, and extend out to nearby states that are competing to attract production companies.
Throughout the process, then and now, we stressed the need to set-aside the misconception that parents, guardians, co-workers, union officials, educators and employers would always do what is in the best interest of the working child. The sad reality is that existing law, such as it is, too often is flagrantly violated in both spirit and intent by a wide array of competing interests. Money is squandered, work hour limitations ignored, educational necessities and even safety itself can go by the wayside in the pressure to put on a show. In the words of President Reagan, we urged everyone to "Trust, but Verify."
The problems faced by working children and their families have grown worse in the passing years since 2003. The images captured and frozen for all time in this Internet World have grown into unimaginable threats to these public children. Reality Television and the opportunities for monumental child abuse now blatantly surround us, whether in the depiction of adolescent sexuality or outright illegal conduct, some of it captured on digital media wielded by highly compensated individuals who seem to forget that they are dealing with children. And always, when images and misdeeds erupt into headlines and are broadcast into our homes, the question arises, "Where are the parents?"
The answer is that in most instances and in most places of employment that utilize children the parents ARE doing the right thing. They follow the rules, carefully monitor their children, and when the need arises, speak up for their kids. But "most" is not "all," and when the System itself if flawed and ripe for manipulation the worst sort of conduct can be anticipated. That is why we make rules and pass laws.
The current situation, months in the making, has resulted in a series of proposals that do not come close to our original aspirations. The provisions for formal medical examinations and the costs involved are over-reaching. The use of the term “responsible person” is fraught with peril.
As others have noted, even the ownership of the money earned by a child has not been addressed.
I join with other parties who have suggested that these proposed rules be tabled and an experienced Industry panel be created to deal with this diverse landscape in a timely fashion and then report to the various state and local departments so we can reformulate these regulations.
Two critical principles must frame all our deliberations. First, an absolute adherence to this fundamental fact: “The continuing presence of minors in the workplace where adults are being compensated for their labor, constitutes employment.” No exceptions. Second, “In the absence of law…or where a conflict in child labor law exists… the strictest interpretation shall apply.” This language already exists in the Basic Agreements between the theatrical unions and the Producers.
I realize that a great deal of time and effort have gone into these proposed regulations. It has not been in vain. As the immortal jazz great Louis Armstrong said, “It takes a long time to learn what notes not to play.”
President & Founder