In 28 states, low-level exhibitor staffers are fighting to end long hours without extra pay.
While a strong December film slate helped lead U.S. box office revenue to a projected $11.4 billion in 2019 (down 4 percent year-over-year), many lower-level employees at top theater chains in multiple states worked without overtime or holiday pay — as they have for much of the past century.
Now, a widely circulated petition by staffers at AMC Theatres is hoping to draw attention to a longtime exemption in 1938's federal Fair Labor Standards Act that allows exhibitors to refrain from providing staff with time-and-a-half pay rates in states without strict overtime laws. "The theater can take advantage of employees and schedule them as much as possible without having to worry, since there's no overtime pay," says Mathew Carpenter, who recently left his job at AMC and was among the 7,496 signatures on the petition that was started by an Atlanta-based, theater-restaurant cook at the chain in 2018. (AMC did not respond to requests for comment.)
Currently, lower-level movie theater employees lack mandated overtime in 28 states. Theater chains nabbed their Fair Labor Standards Act amendment in 1967 to exempt "any employee employed by an establishment which is a motion picture theater" from both minimum wage and overtime. The rationale for the exemption at the time was that theaters could not afford the labor costs because of low profit margins, poor box office and rising costs. While the minimum-wage exemption was removed in 1974, the overtime exemption has remained, to the puzzlement of labor experts.
"To me, the motion picture worker [exemption] makes no sense," says Eve Wagner, a mediator/arbitrator with Signature Resolution, which specializes in employment, entertainment and business matters. Adds Michael Hancock, an attorney at Cohen Milstein's civil rights and employment group and a former assistant administrator for the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour division, "It's hard to see any sort of rational economic argument for it." (The National Association of Theatre Owners declined to comment.)
Without intervention from the Department of Labor, theater employees seeking changes to their benefits for overtime pay might have the most luck pressuring individual state representatives since, as Hancock notes, "legislation at a federal level is pretty much at a standstill." Wagner adds, "The states could certainly enact their own legislation. Or the business could just decide to do it. Just because you don't have to do it doesn't mean you can't."
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