A dozen former workers on some of U.S. television's leading reality shows, including "American Idol," filed state labor complaints Tuesday seeking $500,000 in unpaid overtime and penalties.
The claims, lodged with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, are part of a broader campaign by the union representing Hollywood writers to end what workers on many such shows have described as sweatshop conditions.
The Writers Guild of America has sought since 2005 to organize reality show workers. And two class-action lawsuits filed that year accused several major networks and production companies of violating California labor laws governing overtime wages and meal breaks.
Those suits, which are still pending, also accused producers of coercing workers to falsify their time cards.
Justin Buckles, 28, a former production assistant and production coordinator on "American Idol," said he routinely put in 12 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week without lunch breaks during his three-year stint on the show.
When he approached his boss seeking a raise or overtime compensation, he was threatened with dismissal, he said.
"I was told I was completely replaceable, and that if I decided to speak out, I would be blacklisted and would not be able to work in the industry again," he told Reuters. Buckles said he last worked on "Idol" in 2006 and now runs his own Web-based venture.
A spokesman for "Idol" production company FremantleMedia declined to comment.
"American Idol," which airs on the Fox network, ranks as U.S. television's most-watched show, averaging nearly 30 million viewers a week.
Buckles was one of 12 former workers from various reality shows, including "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" "Amazing Race" and "American Inventor," who filed claims seeking roughly $500,000 in back pay for overtime and meal break penalties collectively, WGA spokesman Gregg Mitchell said.
The WGA sought to gain union jurisdiction over reality shows in its latest round of contract negotiations but dropped that demand in order to reach a settlement of its 100-day strike against major studios.
The WGA says roughly 1,000 reality TV writers, producers and editors have signed authorization cards asking for union representation.
Industry executives deny those workers act as writers because they do not, for the most part, pen conventional scripts or dialogue.
But the union says they serve as the functional equivalent of writers by working to create dramatic tension — and the artifice of spontaneity — by helping to stage interactions of contestants and editing hundreds of hours of tape into coherent, compelling story lines.
Meanwhile, the host, celebrity judges, and even some of the amateur talent on such shows as "American Idol" get union wages and benefits as members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.