Parents of Child Actors: New Bill in Congress Penalizes Kids & Parents — Call Your Representative NOW!

Congresswoman Grace Meng

Congresswoman Grace Meng authored H.R. 3691, which she calls the “Child Performer’s Protection Act.”

Congresswoman Grace Meng, who represents the 6th District of New York (Queens) in the House of Representatives, has introduced H. R. 3691, described as a bill, “To limit the number of hours that children may be employed as actors, performers, and models, to require blocked trust accounts for the financial protection of such children, to clarify the liability of employers, contractors, and other individuals for sexual harassment of such child performers, and for other purposes.”

As the parent and grandparent of several working performers (in circus, film, television, and live shows), I’m all for protecting young actors, performers, and models. But that isn’t what this bill actually does.  Here’s a link to the full text of the bill, as certified by the Congressional publishing office.  If you’d like to download a PDF of the bill, you can do it on the link above, or at this link: Grace Meng’s HR 3691

As the BizParentz Foundation noted on its Facebook page, there are a number of problems with the bill. The main one is that it is very vague, and many of the provisions appear to penalize working children and teens without providing anything new to protect them. I’m going to list my specific problems with the bill below.  If you agree with me — or have concerns of your own after reading the bill — please take a few minutes to write to Ms. Meng or your own Representative to put a stop to this bill which is sure to cut down on the number of jobs available for child & teen actors, models, and performers.

Congresswoman Meng’s office doesn’t accept phone calls or emails from anyone who lives outside her district, but you can write to them at the street address for her Washington or Queens office. Here’s a link to her website’s “contacts” page. If you live in her district, please contact her directly — and if you don’t, please contact your own Representative.  Here’s a link to the “How to Find Your Representative” page of the Congressional website.

Problem #1 With HR 3691: Vague Language

Kameron Badgers & Julio Furlon at Lone Star Circus 2016

Grandson Kameron Badgers (L) and circus coach and performer Julio Furlon performing with the Lone Star Circus. Are circus performers covered in Ms. Meng’s bill?

The first problem with the bill introduced by Ms. Meng is that it doesn’t specify exactly what kinds of performers the bill covers. The bill specifically applies to models in fashion shows, showrooms or similar production or for commercial media. Does it also apply to charity events? To photo shoots for stock photography? For photo shoots for social media use only? To photo shoots for editorial use?

The bill says that it applies to “children under the age of 18 employed or contracted as an actor or performer in a motion picture or live theatrical production, or in a radio or television production.” It has some exception to limits on hours worked for “live theatrical performances, including theater, opera and dance”, but what about circus? Orchestra or band? Student films or school-sponsored TV programs? Reality television shows like America’s Got Talent or American Idol? To kids who perform as part of a family “act” (musical groups, circus acts, etc.)?

Last, but not least, Ms. Meng’s bill applies to all performers under 18. The bill does not exempt high school graduates or emancipated minors. I’ll bet that wouldn’t set well with all the established child actors working as “functional 18” on TV series, commercials, or films. These kids worked their tails off to graduate early, and it hardly seems fair to treat them differently now, after they worked extra hard to comply with the “old” rules.

Problem #2 With HR 3691: Ridiculous Restrictions

Kameron Badgers on the set of WGN's Salem Season 3

Getting into a period costume, and having prosthetic make up or blood applied, takes time. Ms. Meng’s bill doesn’t make allowance for time spent on set, but not working, such as meals, make-up and hair, rehearsals, or time in a holding area or trailer. This is my grandson waiting to go onto the set of the TV show Salem.  It took well over an hour and a half to get him through the costume department, hair & make-up, plus a stop at the “blood station”.

I think that where the bill REALLY causes problems for child actors and performers is in the new, far stricter limits on the hours a child performer can “be permitted to remain at the place of employment or contracting” (emphasis mine). Note that the bill does not say that a child can’t work more than a certain number of hours.  It says that the child cannot be permitted to remain at the place of employment or contracting.

Here’s what Ms. Meng is proposing:

‘‘An infant who has not reached six months of age may be permitted to remain at the place of employment or contracting for no more than 2 hours.

(II) A child performer age six months to twenty-four months may be permitted to remain at the place of employment or contracting for no more than 4 hours a day.

(III) A child performer age 2 years to 6 years may be permitted to remain at the place of employment or contracting for no more than 6 hours a day.

(IV) A child performer age 6 years to 9 years may be permitted to remain at the place of employment or contracting for no more than 8 hours per day.

(V) A child performer age 9 years to 16 years may be permitted to remain at the place of employment or contracting for no more than 9 hours per day”.

What about the mandatory 3 hours per day of on-set schooling? What about hair and make-up? Rehearsals? Training? Split-schedules such as filming a sunrise scene, then after a day of rest in your trailer, coming back in the evening for a night shoot? Meals taken on set? Do those hours count against the child’s time “permitted to remain” at the “place of employment or contracting”?

What about rain delays, equipment malfunctions, or plain old-fashioned screw-ups? What about time spend in a holding area or trailer or green room, where the child isn’t working, but is instead playing with friends, reading, playing games on a phone or tablet or even napping? The bill doesn’t seem to permit these things.

And don’t get me started on some of the “non-performance” related aspects of a successful working child actor or performer, like publicity tours, photo shoots to promote the show or film, awards season (with its non-stop activities), and all the classes that most performers take to keep their skills up even while they’re working.

For those on a film or TV set, the bill would severely restrict their on-camera time. And, of course, for teens between 14 and 18, it means that hiring adult actors to “play younger” is even more attractive than it is now. Limiting the work day to 9 hours for my 16-year-old is one thing, but that isn’t what this bill proposes.  In a 9-hour day, with 3 hours of school and an hour of hair, make-up, and costume time (and it can take much more for some roles), that means the teen performer can only work five hours. (I should point out that my teenager doesn’t really consider time on set to be “work” — it’s dress up and play time that he gets paid for, and getting him to leave when he reaches his current work limit isn’t always easy.)

A section of the bill allows children who are members of SAG-AFTRA to follow the negotiated work rules in the union’s collective bargaining agreement. But most of the working child and teen actors outside New York and California work on non-union films, so they would be subject to Ms. Meng’s new, harsh rules.

Problem #3 With HR 3691: Limited Compensation & Coogan Trusts

Kameron Badgers on the set of Beyond the Bridge

My grandson Kameron Badgers (in yellow) on the set of an anti-suicide film shot with a cast and crew of volunteers. Does Ms. Meng’s bill prohibit the producer of not-for-profits from offering “footage for a demo reel, IMDB credit, and good food and snacks” in lieu of cash payment?

Ms. Meng doesn’t stop with attempting to usurp a parent’s decision about how many hours a child can remain “at the place of employment”. She is also restricting how a child or teen actor or model can be compensated and requires a Coogan Trust for all performers under age 18.

Here’s one of the provisions restricting how child & teen performers get paid “(iii) An employer or contractor may not provide compensation to any child performer in any other form other than cash wages, exclusive of board, lodging, or facilities.”

So does this mean that if your child is cast in a block-buster film, your agent can’t negotiate “points” that could add substantially to the his or her compensation? Does it mean that they can’t get merchandise as part of the deal? I know several kids who have done commercials for theme parks, for example, and happily spent a day riding rides and interacting with characters in exchange for a family season pass (worth hundreds) and a lower cash payment.

You’ll often see a casting notice that says something like, “No pay, but actors get IMDB credit, footage for their demo reel, and good food/snacks while filming.” Does this bill prohibit this? My grandson often does unpaid projects for causes he believes in — suicide prevention, animal welfare, homelessness — and has filmed a number of PSAs (public service announcements) or short projects without pay.

Then there’s the issue of the so-called Coogan Trusts.  After 30’s star Jackie Coogan’s parents went through his substantial earnings, the state of California enacted the first  “blocked trust” or Coogan Account.  Currently, child actors working for pay in New York, California, Louisiana, and New Mexico must have such a trust set up, and to have no less than 15% of every paycheck deposited in the account. Neither the child actor nor his or her parents can get to the money until the child is 18 or 21 (depending on the state). Banks in those states set the account up, and the employers who hire them make direct deposits.

Ms. Meng’s bill expands the law to all 50 states. That would be fine with me, but there isn’t a bank in my home state of Texas that will set up such an account without first requiring me to hire an attorney to set up a trust document, and most require an initial deposit of $500-1,000.  So if you have a beginning child actor, hired for their first job, you’ll have to come up with the money to set up the trust (because states with no state “Coogan Law” don’t recognize “blocked trusts” for a group of citizens — just individual trust funds). My experience trying to set up such a trust when my child was working in Louisiana was time-consuming and wasteful — we finally opened a bank account in Louisiana, using a cousin’s mailing address, because we couldn’t get a bank in Texas to do it in the format required by Louisiana’s Coogan Trust law. How easy is it to set up such a trust account in your home state?

The bill also doesn’t appear to exempt performers who work for free from having a blocked trust account set up before they sign a contract to work without pay. Perhaps I am reading this wrong (I am NOT a lawyer), but here’s what the bill says: ‘‘(ii) An employer or contractor may not employ any child performer unless a trust account has been established on behalf of the child performer and the employer has obtained the account number of such trust account or other proof of the existence of the trust account.”

It doesn’t say that an employer can’t PAY a child performer until they have the account information. It says they may not “employ” them. When the child performers in my family work on student films, circus performances, or even appear in Christmas parades or local festivals, they sign an employment agreement that specifies whether or not they will be paid, what rights are being given to each party, and sets up any rules on liability, as well as specifying what the performer is being contracted to do, and when and where they are expected to do it. Under Ms. Meng’s bill would I have to have a blocked trust before allowing a child to work in an unpaid capacity? I am not sure.

What HR 3691 Got Right

I don’t want to sound as if I am bashing Ms. Meng. I simply think she needs to hear from the parents of working child performers, and correct some of the vague language and assumptions that could cause big problems for our kids. One thing she got right is the sexual harassment section of the bill.

This measure would make it easier for kids and parents to report, and sue to collect damages, for sexual abuse and harassment — even if the harassment or abuse is by another performer or someone on set who is not a “direct supervisor” of the child performer. In the past, it’s been difficult for kids or parents to sue, but Ms. Meng’s bill would provide for reasonable attorney’s fees and compensatory damages, and make it easier for families to sue.

NOTE: As of mid-February 2018, this bill is still in committee, so calls to your Congressional Representative are still needed to insure that it stays there and is not passed into law.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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