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Money Talks: Navigating unemployment two years into the pandemic

Ryan and Julie, a couple working in the entertainment industry, spoke with us about their finances in April of 2020. Here’s how things have changed.

Nicole Dieker is a personal finance expert who's been writing about money for over a decade. Her work has appeared in Bankrate, Lifehacker, Morning Brew, and Dwell. She answers reader questions for Vox's On the Money column.

In April 2020, we reached out to screenwriters Ryan and Julie (not their real names) to learn how the entertainment industry was dealing with the still-nascent pandemic. Ryan was earning $18 an hour prior to being laid off; Julie was earning $16.50 in a union-protected job. Now that Hollywood is effectively back in business, we got back in touch with Ryan and Julie, now aged 41 and 34, to learn how Covid-19 changed the industry — and how these changes have affected their lives and finances.

Ryan: I was on unemployment until October 2020, right when the end of the extra government unemployment money went away, and I got a call for a job. It timed out perfectly for me. I got hired as a showrunner’s assistant for my old boss, and I ended up being on that for a year. It was a year of income, and I ended up getting promoted to writer. I ended up getting 14 weeks of a writer’s paycheck, which was literally five times what I was making as an assistant.

Things were great for a while after that!

Julie: For you. I had very much the opposite situation. A few days after he picked up his job, I got laid off. We kept doing our show remotely until October 2020 — and a lot of other shows, after those first few months, were able to go back with certain protocols in place, but the show I was on closed its writers’ room in October.

I did not work for a long time after that. I was on unemployment, but it was just regular unemployment — I didn’t get the boosted version.

It was a long, sad, depressing period of time. In July 2021, I picked up a month-long gig because I needed anything. That was four weeks of work, and then I was able to get another writer’s assistant job.

At the time, we were getting health insurance from my union. Since I had been out of work for almost a year, we were weeks away from losing our health insurance. I needed 170 hours [of work] by the end of September to keep our insurance, and this job came with, like, a week to spare. It was an 18-week job, and I wrapped it right before the holidays.

Ryan: I finished my job in October 2021, and now we’re both unemployed again. Since I was making that writer’s salary, we were able to save a bunch of money. That was really helpful.

Julie: First you were on the expanded unemployment, then you were working and getting a tremendous amount of overtime, so before you even got your writer’s salary we were able to pay off a ton of debt.

Ryan: Three credit cards.

Julie: We also paid off the vet bill for our cat [who had been very ill right before the original interview]. All in all it was between $10,000 and $20,000 of debt.

Ryan: We got the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, since I was self-employed. Also, just being at home, not spending on gasoline and going out to eat, turns out you can save a lot of money!

Julie: In January of last year we turned Ryan’s car in. It was a lease. We’re down to one car now, and it’s been fine.

Ryan: Less insurance, less gas.

Julie: My car has been paid off for nearly two years now. We paid it off early in the pandemic. We may need another car in the future, but right now we’re saving $500 a month just having one.

Ryan: Having one car hasn’t really been a problem. Most of the time if we both need to be somewhere at the same time, we’re both going to the same place. It’s only been twice where we’ve needed to be two different places at the same time, so one of us will just take an Uber or the train. I had jury duty for a week, and I was taking the train into downtown.

Julie: Plus, your job was completely remote. I was working a combo thing — we had an office, but it was entirely up to me whether I went in or not. We had writers who were spread out across the country, so we were on Zoom either way. I would go in once or twice a week, since I had to go in to test [for Covid-19]. Any testing we are required to do is covered, and my summer job provided KN95 masks. I took a bunch home!

Ryan: The gas you were paying to go get tested was still less than you’d pay if you had to go into the office every day.

Julie: And my office is fairly close. On one of my previous jobs, I was going to a location that was 45 miles away. That’s 500 miles in gas a week. They weren’t paying me anything for that!

Ryan: You lose a lot by not having an in-person writers’ room. The cross-talk, the back-and-forth — you can’t do that on Zoom because the software doesn’t work that way. On the other hand, since nobody wants to be on Zoom for 10 hours, it really streamlines things. I guess there could be an argument that, you know, “maybe we settled on an idea that wasn’t as good as what we could have come up with in the physical room,” but I don’t know how you measure that. Plus, not having to spend hours in traffic every day — maybe I’ll take it! The TV show is just as good as it would have been otherwise, and I get all that time back.

Julie: For me, the biggest loss in virtual vs. in-person rooms is the lack of the whiteboard. That’s where the process is hurting. It’s amazing how many writers have a really tough time seeing an episode or seeing a season without that whiteboard. All of the ad hoc ways to replicate the whiteboard online are just not as good.

Ryan: It’s a lot of information to hold in your head.

Julie: My whole job is to hold it in my head, and it’s awful. The rest of it — it’s nice, but it’s not necessary. It’s not necessary to shoot the shit for three hours to write good television. People believe that, but they’re wrong. The lack of boards, that’s what actually slows things down or makes things worse.

A lot of jobs went away when writers’ rooms went remote. The production assistant job, which is quote-unquote “entry level” and is the person who is getting the lunches and making the copies, most of those positions were eliminated. There is no need for a PA if you are in a virtual room. Competition for the remaining jobs has gotten even harder, and they were already very difficult to get to begin with!

Ryan: Plus, there’s a level of job you can’t get unless you start as a PA and move up. You’re out of luck.

Julie: We’ve had two years now where the entry-level writing job no longer exists. So that’s weird. Writers’ rooms have also gotten smaller, which also means less work for all of us.

Ryan: Ideally I’d get another job by this summer. I’m on unemployment, but it’s going to run out. We have savings, but they’re going to run out.

Julie: The reality of our financial situation is that we have about three months where we can wait for writing jobs. After that, we have to accept anything. It’s very possible that we could both end up as assistants again.

Ryan: We’re not just waiting around to get hired, either. We’re working on pilots, talking to managers, doing things to move our careers forward. There’s a lot of work that goes in that doesn’t bring in a paycheck.

Julie: The good news is that, if we do end up working at assistant jobs again, they’ll be significantly more livable. I spent part of the pandemic working with Local 871, which is IATSE, which meant I was really involved in a lot of contract negotiations. Before the negotiations ended, the minimum payment for writer’s assistants was $16.50 an hour. Now it’s $23.50. That’s massive. From a financial situation, going back to those jobs is much better than it would have been six months ago.

Ryan: I’d rather not go back to living on credit cards after getting the biggest promotion in my life!


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