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Reality writers sue Fox over lost wages

Guild unveils second lawsuit; claims scant pay, false time cards
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

The Writers Guild of America fired another shot at reality TV producers Wednesday by announcing a second class-action lawsuit in which writers and editors are seeking to win back alleged lost wages.

The union is optimistic that it will win damages for alleged violations of California labor law and force the industry as a whole to recognize reality TV writers, producers and editors as a collective bargaining unit.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, targets Fox Broadcasting Co. and production company Rocket Science over seven series including “Trading Spouses,” “Joe Millionaire” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance.”

Three of the 10 named plaintiffs joined union leaders to announce the suit, which they believe could draw retaliation from employers.

“People fear this could end your career,” said Zachary Isenberg, who worked as a story assistant on “Renovate My Family” for three months in summer 2004. “I enjoy my job and want to keep doing it, but I also know there comes a certain point where you have to stand up for yourself.”

Isenberg and the others claim they were forced to falsify time cards so that Fox and Rocket Science could pay them a flat weekly rate when, in fact, they worked at least 80 hours per week with no overtime and few if any meal breaks.

“The purpose of this suit is to restore to the plaintiffs and the members of the class they represent the wages they have earned and to end the companies’ exploitative practices in this burgeoning and profitable sector of the Hollywood economy,” according to the complaint.

A similar class-action suit was filed in July by a group of story producers against four production companies and ABC, CBS, WB Network and Turner Broadcasting System. More suits will be filed, said plaintiffs attorney Tony Segall.

Fox and Rocket Science said they do not comment on pending litigation.

The union’s campaign got under way May 7 when about 1,000 story producers signed authorization cards requesting that the West Coast arm of the Writers Guild be their bargaining agent with production outfits. About 70 of these companies have been asked to recognize the bargaining rights of these storytellers but none has yet to agree to negotiate, guild officials said.

While none of the affected people carried the title of “writer” on these shows, the union believes they performed the same basic function by creating scenarios, engineering moments of drama and editing the raw footage into a story line.

Segall said Fox and Rocket Science are each liable in this case because they essentially co-produced the shows, which additionally include “The Next Joe Millionaire,” “Seriously, Dude, I’m Gay” and “Married by America.”

It is claimed that the plaintiffs were required to sign blank time cards or follow a supplied template so that the end result equaled an agreed-upon weekly rate.

Lowell Goodman, a plaintiff who worked last year as a story producer on “Trading Spouses,” said he frequently worked 12 or more hours per day in a seven-day work week that rarely permitted meal breaks.

“There were standing instructions to fill out the time card according to a template given by Rocket Science,” Goodman said. “I simply want to be compensated for these long hours in accordance with the law.”

Another plaintiff, Victoria Dew, said last-minute changes ordered by Fox forced her and other crew members to work 15-hour days on “Renovate My Family.”

“We the storytellers of reality television are no longer going to pay the price for any network’s lack of planning,” Dew said. “We demand to be compensated for our hard work and craftsmanship.”