“I Can’t Afford To Quit The Industry.” For Hollywood Assistants In Shut-Down Mode, There’s No Other Option

Hollywood has come to a grinding halt. What’s next for the assistants holding the industry up?

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In Hollywood, working as an assistant is more than just a way to cut one's teeth in the business: It’s a rite of passage. Many of today’s A-list creatives — from producers to writers to directors  — worked their way up from fetching coffee and sorting mail to making the movies and TV shows that keep the masses entertained. 
There are many types of assistants in Hollywood. There are the executive assistants, who take calls and book lunches at talent agencies or development offices, production assistants who refill coffee carts and make script copies on film sets, personal assistants who plan the lives of their high-profile bosses, and writers’ assistants who take notes while the writers’ room breaks stories. No matter what one’s specific job title or duties are, being an assistant in Hollywood, while glamorous-sounding and celebrity-adjacent, isn’t easy. At many companies, salaries for assistants are still close to minimum wage, even though the cost of living in Los Angeles has skyrocketed. For many — and especially those with financial burdens like supporting families — their daily grind means living hand-to-mouth on the hope that the struggle will one day pay off. Maybe one day, they’ll be running the show with assistants of their own. 
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In 2019, things were looking up for assistants: Thanks to the hashtag-turned-movement #PayUpHollywood started by TV writer Liz Alper and a special interest taken by Scriptnotes podcasters and screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin, stories of underpaid and overworked assistants were finally being heard. A town hall held by the people behind #PayUpHollywood allowed support staff to express their grievances. Verve, a mid-sized agency, agreed to boost the salaries of its lowest level employees in the wake of the movement. Creative Artists Agency, which represents stars such as Reese Witherspoon and Chris Evans, agreed to raise assistant salaries from $15 to $18 USD per hour.
Whether they’ve been in the industry for a few years or a few weeks, no assistant was prepared for the immediate and lasting impact the coronavirus would have on the industry they’ve sacrificed so much to be a part of. Almost immediately after the worldwide pandemic was announced, productions had no choice but to shut down. Offices sent everyone home. Movie theatres, comedy clubs, and concert venues — where many assistants spend weekends staying on top of trends and talent, sometimes as a way to bring their bosses new material and potentially raise their own status — shuttered. 
The trades documented the industry’s near halt, and thanks to social media, we know what celebrities are doing while social distancing in their mansions. Meanwhile, not much attention has been paid to the plight of assistants. While a relief fund was set up for support staff by the minds behind #PayUpHollywood, the lowest level employees in the entertainment industry are now locked in a confusing and scary time. For some, the changes mean shorter hours, strange schedules, and an abundance of Zoom meetings. The less fortunate saw their positions eliminated entirely, while others are living in limbo, unsure how long they’ll get to keep their jobs as the industry is forced to regroup. 
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Refinery29 spoke to over a dozen assistants across the industry via email, Twitter DMs, and over the phone about how they are managing during these challenging times. They will all remain anonymous to protect their future in the industry and their employers. 
Hollywood will adapt, and new movies, shows, and albums will be produced, but what will happen to its support staff in the meantime remains to be seen. In our conversations with assistants, a few mentioned studios cutting down on overtime, resulting in a loss of more than 20% of their take home pay. One noted that the shift to assistant-free virtual meetings means they can no longer learn from industry insiders — a huge benefit of the job. Others have wondered what it means for their future careers if they lose their job now, having put years into the assistant grind. 
If assistants are the future of Hollywood, what happens in the next few months could change the landscape of the industry. 
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Assistant At A Production Company With A Major Studio Deal
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown?
“Nothing has been guaranteed. We have no way of knowing if we will eventually just be laid off completely.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now?
“I was in the office from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (sometimes earlier or later by an hour, depending on demands of that particular day), Monday through Friday. Additionally, I would do some reading on the weekend, which brought my hours up to 60 (they have now been cut down to 40). I am currently keeping the same hours, available by phone and Zoom, and continuing to read scripts from home. My workload has not changed — all meetings are just being rescheduled as calls or Zoom calls. I am still logging submissions, taking meetings, reading scripts and books, checking voicemails, setting up conference calls, etc.”
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Are you being asked to pivot in any way?
“The only difference has been shifting what was meant to be a lunch to a Zoom conference instead. I imagine the executives who normally expense thousands of dollars per month on fancy coffees, meals, and drinks can no longer do that due to closures — maybe they should use THAT money to continue paying their assistants a (barely) livable salary.”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else? 
“I'm trying to figure out if we can collect unemployment to make up for lost wages while still working 40 hours. If not, I can't financially support myself on the measly $570 USD a week they're willing to throw our way. I refuse to go further into debt for an industry that has proven time and time again that it won't protect its support staff. I won't have any choice but to quit and move back home. I hope that this will all blow over and I can make it back somehow.”
Writers’ Production Assistant 
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown? 
“Nope. No job post corona.”
What was your schedule then and what is it like now? 
“My schedule was working 60 hours a week and now, since I don't have a job, I'm doing things like taking a TV writing class and running in the park to stay productive (and sane).”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way? 
“The writers' room went virtual a few weeks ago, meeting on Zoom. I started to feel intense anxiety because I knew how cheap our network is. I was the writers’ PA, so my job was to go out and get their lunch orders and office supplies. Online, I was useless. I knew it was only a matter of time before they let me go. I told my showrunner my concern and he said not to worry. He fought for me. I know he did, but eventually, the network had the last word and cut me loose.”
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Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else?
“I'm considering going back to full-time teaching in the fall for a greater sense of job security. I took the leap of faith last year and quit teaching to move from Brooklyn out here to L.A. What terrible timing. I can't help but think that if I were still a teacher right now, I'd still be getting paid through all this and have health insurance. The fact that a network can just throw me away at the first sign of trouble means the assistant route might not be for me. I'm too anxious and old for this. So, I'm planning to go back to teaching for now until I find another way to break in.” 
Script Coordinator On A Cable Series
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown? 
“I honestly don't know. I was supposed to come back — with all signs pointing to a series renewal — once the writers’ room returns in April. I had turned down other script coordinator jobs in the interim as I was home with a newborn and figured coming back to the show was my best chance at getting to write a script this season and maybe get staffed [on the series].
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now? 
“When I was working on the show it was 60 hours a week, pedal to the metal. But after we wrapped in December I was enjoying the bonding period with my daughter and taking general meetings for staff writer positions and shopping my pilots with development executives. Now, I'm self-quarantining because I had head and neck cancer a couple years ago and all the lymph nodes in the right side of my neck were removed, putting me (and, by proxy, my family) at a higher risk for [the coronavirus].” 
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Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else? 
“I'm picking up odd writing assignments here and there for a bit of money, putting our whole life on credit cards really. Cancer wasn't cheap and neither is having a newborn. I wouldn't even know where to start, the only other ‘skill’ I have is waiting/bartending and THAT'S not coming back anytime soon, either. I'm going to figure something out, I just haven't found the answer yet.” 

I can't financially support myself on the measly $570 USD a week they're willing to throw our way.

Writers’ Assistant On Network Drama
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown? 
“I’m not sure. I think so, but it’s a little up in the air.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now? 
“I was up at 5:30 a.m. for the gym and at work by 9:30 a.m. I was there until the scripts went out between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. I worked Monday through Friday. Now, production is shut down.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way? 
“No. The scary thing is they were just like ‘We’re shutting down. Good luck. Hopefully we’ll be back. We’ll be in touch in a month or two,’ and then just silence.”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else, and if so what would that be?
I’m older than most assistants. It took me 10 years to get my assistant job and all I want in life is to be staffed as a writer on a TV series, so I can’t imagine walking away now. But who knows how I’ll feel in a few months?”
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Showrunner’s Assistant For A Limited Series
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown?
“My show was placed on a ‘two-week hold’ less than a week before it was to begin shooting its first season. I have no idea if I have a job after coronavirus, but I'm not hopeful. This is partly due to a lack of communication, but also because our lead actor has other commitments. If the actor's other work gets pushed, we might be able to make it work...It's quite obvious our studio and network are being careful not to make any promises.
“The strangest part of this entire situation is that my boss had no idea I was let go. The studio seemed to make the decision, and this was passed along via our production supervisor to me. The show announced their hold on a Friday, and by Monday my production credit card was frozen, and I was ordered to stop working via email and phone call. About a week and a half after our show officially was ‘on-hold,’ my boss asked me to work on something for them. I was completely taken aback that no one from the studio told them they'd lost their assistant.” 
What was your schedule then and what is it like now? 
“I was putting down full 60-hour weeks. I had no guarantee on this show — this was a personal hourly agreement between my boss and I. [The company I work for] is giving everyone three weeks of what payroll called "the humanitarian paycheck.” This is for 40 hours, regardless if you worked higher hours prior, per week. 
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“I was prepared for our production to shut down, but I was not prepared to have no job security. Given that my boss' overall deal is unlikely to be ‘paused’ or ‘on-hold’ during this time, I'm not sure why my job, which is intrinsically tied to theirs, is now gone. 
“The dark, silver lining to this is that at least I haven't lost healthcare via job loss like many other assistants I know. I never had it to begin with!”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else? 
“No question, I wouldn't leave the industry. Like many others, in addition to my industry job I have a side-hustle. Unfortunately, my second job is child-care and that's quickly dried up as well (and rightly so, with numerous safety concerns).”
Executive Assistant At A Production Company
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown?
“I was laid off.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now? 
“8:45 a.m. to 6:30/7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, then usually one day every weekend for four to five hours, totaling about 55 hours per week.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way? 
“Initially, we went with a reduced schedule and no overtime, bringing my hours down to 40 per week. Half the office was working from home, running things from personal computers and cell phones. Then Safer at Home happened, and those of us who were ‘office-centric’ employees were laid off.”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else?
“Definitely, but the realistic options are limited in the short term. I could start delivery driving, but the money is barely enough even with supplemental unemployment insurance. I could work in a warehouse, but this would put me at risk of exposure to the virus. It's hard to decide what to do when you have to give up a job doing something you like to do”
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Assistant To Department Head At A Major Studio
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown? 
“Yes.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now?
“Previously, my schedule was 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the office. I'd take lunch at 1 p.m. for an hour, and I'd usually work four hours of overtime a week, give or take. Now, I'm working from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. from home, usually with no lunch break. If I have overtime, it's usually 15 to 30 minutes instead of an hour.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way?
“The job responsibilities are more or less the same. Instead of scheduling lunches or drinks, I am scheduling video conferences. General meetings and pitches have had to push, but when they do happen it's via video conference. Things are more difficult because I'm working on a laptop that was rented for me, instead of my desktop, so I don't have everything I might normally have access to, and I'm moving a bit slower since the internet connection isn't as great.”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else?
“I am not considering quitting the industry because of all this. I feel incredibly lucky that my job is secure (at least right now) because we are able to get all of our productions set up remotely, which I know not everyone is able to accomplish.”


They were just like ‘We’re shutting down. Good luck. Hopefully we’ll be back.'

Assistant To Adult Entertainment Actress
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown? 
“Yes, I do!”
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What was your schedule then, and what is it like now?  
“I worked 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. normally and actually have been working more since this all started. I’m working from home, but I’ve been keeping the same schedule for myself since I just function better within structure, plus a few extra hours.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way? 
“I’ve been FaceTiming my coworker while we work, but that’s not because it’s necessary. We just want to keep each other company. Having someone to talk to so the time goes by faster!”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else?
Hell no, I’m making more money now than usual because people have more free time and are signing up for my bosses OnlyFans like crazy, lol.”
Executive Assistant To A Manager
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown? 
“I do have a job, but I am working from home.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now? 
“Before the coronavirus, I was working 10- to 11-hour days, Monday through Friday. All things considered, the volume of work and need hasn’t stopped for us at our company. Our clients still have pitches and general meetings they need to happen, and the town has been super receptive about setting up Skypes and Zooms. That being said, I would say that I’ve moved to eight-hour days Monday through Friday.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way? 
“Now there are lots of Skypes, Zooms, and conference calls being set where there were almost none before.” 
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Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else?
I’m not considering leaving the industry anytime soon. I started with my boss almost 3 years ago, and I’ve put a lot of time and sweat equity into building a network of friends and close contacts. That being said, if I were to lose my job and have to look for work elsewhere, I would try and find something to tide me over until everything reopens, like Amazon delivery, Uber Eats, etc. If times got really bad, my dad works in disaster relief and crisis management and, unfortunately, that business is always booming.”
Writers’ Production Assistant On A Comedy Series
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown? 
“At this point I still don’t know if my writers’ room will continue remotely. Production was postponed. I can’t file for unemployment until I am let go at no fault of my own. I am looking for freelance writing opportunities and have been able to set a couple up.” 
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now?  
My schedule then was working from around 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Now I’m just trying to find things to keep me busy at home — reading, writing, exercising, cooking, and keeping in touch with friends over FaceTime.”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else?
“If I’m let go from my job, I’ll try to fill my time with freelance writing until I can find another entertainment gig.”
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Showrunner’s Assistant 
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown?
“For three weeks only, but at a guarantee of 40 hours per week, instead of my usual 60 hours per week.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now?
I worked eight hours per day then, and work three hours per day now. Before the pandemic, I did everything for my boss from rolling calls to managing his calendar, to liaising with network representatives and production staff, to taking notes in the writers’ room, to pitching jokes and stories for the show.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way?
Now, I’m scheduling Zoom writers’ room meetings instead of working in the physical writers’ room.”
Are you considering quitting the industry temporarily to do something else? 
“While I don't have entertainment work, I have a second job as a script reader for screenwriting competitions.”
Executive Assistant At Major Film Studio
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown?
“I'm very thankful to still have my job post COVID-19. I have a few assistant friends at agencies who aren't so lucky, and my boss knows a few of the agents who have been laid off.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now? 
“I used to get into the office by 9 a.m., work until 1 p.m., grab lunch at the commissary with other assistants for an hour, then go back to work until 7:30 p.m. I would go to drinks or scout talent after work, and get home between 9:30 and 11 p.m. Now, I wake up 20 minutes before work, walk to my living room, and start work.
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“Per my boss' instructions/wishes, I'm usually done with work by 6 p.m., since I've been told I'm not supposed to charge the studio for overtime unless it's absolutely necessary. I used to read scripts on the weekend, when there aren't interruptions, and clock that as overtime; now I read during the workday, pausing to connect business calls as necessary. All of the talent scouting I used to do I can only do online now.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way? 
“I've been turning most of his meetings into videoconferences. What's interesting is the change in how I, an assistant, am included or excluded from certain things now that everything is done virtually. When we were back in the office, if I wasn't invited to a meeting or a pitch, I couldn't be in the room — but I got to listen to all the business calls my boss was a part of, including pitches via phone. Now that meetings are moving more towards videoconference, I can't listen in and learn from them anymore.” 
Are you considering quitting the industry temporarily to do something else?
“I can't afford to quit the industry. I can barely afford my rent and standard monthly expenses (student loans, utilities, car insurance, groceries) now that I'm not making overtime. I definitely couldn't afford to quit my job and lose my health insurance. The only places that are hiring are places like Amazon and grocery stores, where I'd be making less than I do now, and I'd be significantly more exposed to the virus than I am now. 
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“There's a point that I think a lot of higher-level people are missing when they say assistants and other non-salaried workers can't file overtime. Yes, most of us aren't working overtime, so on a basic moral level it makes sense that if we're not working overtime, we shouldn't be clocking overtime work. But overtime pay is the only thing that makes assistant jobs (barely) livable wage. When you remove overtime, that assistant is now making 27% less than they used to. That's a huge cut in pay.”
Executive Assistant At A Production Company

Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown?
“I do, thankfully. The company is independently owned and operated and it’s small, so we’ve been able to maintain operations.”
What was your schedule then, and what is it like now?
“Basically the same: 45 hours a week, continuing on at the same times as before.”
Are you being asked to pivot in any way?
“Meetings have ground to a halt as everyone is postponing or moving to calls. Fewer things are actively happening, so we’re spending more time looking for material. Initially, there was huge resistance to moving us to remote work, even though I pointed out this was a huge health risk.”
Are you considering leaving the industry temporarily to do something else?
“Currently I feel lucky to have a job, but if (God forbid) that were to change, I would go into politics immediately. The absolute gall of the government to majorly botch this whole response, and then to essentially proceed as if everything’s fine because the stock market is plummeting and if we all believe hard enough it’ll go back up again is appalling. I’m tired of all of us being sacrificed for the rich, and that’s going to have to change one way or another.”
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Casting Assistant
Do you have a job post coronavirus shutdown?
“Technically no. It is understood that when production gets back on track, I will come back to work for the casting director that I was working with. However, we haven't heard yet whether our show will be picked up for another season.”
What was your schedule then and what is it like now?
“When I was working as a casting assistant, I was submitting weekly time cards with a 60 hour guarantee. Now, I am watching all the Marvel movies in order of where they fall chronologically within the narrative. It's a shift.”

Are you considering quitting the industry temporarily to do something else?
“I am not quitting the industry. I have filed for unemployment and plan to wait out the storm until productions start up again.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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