On June 14, 2023, TAG Member Programs Coordinator Jackie Huang led a Q&A with TAG Business Representative Steve Kaplan about freelancing at Union studios. Topics included the definition of a freelancer, how freelance hours affect health benefits, how to keep track of freelance hours, and more.
What is a freelancer in the animation industry, and can you be a freelancer under The Animation Guild Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA)?
Yes, you can work as a freelancer for any signatory studios that have a contract with TAG. This work must be done under the terms of TAG’s CBA.
The term “freelance” has many definitions that have been given over time. . Regardless of whether or not they are called a “freelancer,” there is not a distinction for “freelance” or non-full-time work when it is being done at a signatory studio under a Union contract. Both full-time and “freelance” work abide by the same contract agreements depending on the type of work being done:
- Weekly employee with a guaranteed 40 hours a week.
- Daily employee with a guaranteed daily rate.
- Unit rate employee with a specific guaranteed rate for a specific amount of work.
If you pick up freelance work from a signatory studio before you have become a Guild member, do those hours count toward your health and pension benefits?
Yes. Every hour worked with a signatory studio under TAG’s CBA counts toward your Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans (MPI) hours.
Your TAG membership is official once you have paid the necessary initiation fees. Your MPI contributions begin the first hour you work for a signatory studio with a CBA contract. This is the case even if you are working as a freelancer.
- If you are freelancing as a weekly or daily employee, your MPI contributions are fixed in the CBA.
- If you are freelancing as a unit rate employee—flat rate for work performed—you need to come to an agreement with your employer on how much they will contribute.
While your MPI contributions begin the moment you start working, you need 600 hours for your benefits to start. If you are freelancing, you have up to one year to accrue the required 600 hours.
Do overtime hours count toward MPI benefits?
Yes. MPI health care and pension contributions are based on all hours that you work for a signatory studio under a TAG CBA.
If you are in between jobs and you pick up short-term work, do those hours count toward your MPI benefits?
Yes, if you are working for a signatory studio under a CBA contract.
How do you check to see how many hours you have accrued?
Unfortunately, you are not able to access the MPI participant portal until your health and pension benefits start. You will need to call MPI at 855-275-4674 and speak to the Participant Services Center to access your information.
If you are working full-time, can you pick up freelance work at another studio or show?
Yes. But keep in mind that working on two shows might not mean working for two different companies. For example, ShadowMachine has different shows produced under different studios. If you are working for different shows under the same parent company, that could require the company to pay you overtime rather than for two different projects.
How do you know if studios are under the same parent company?
Contact a TAG Field Representative at email@example.com.
Can a studio tell you that you cannot pick up work at another studio?
Yes, a studio can put that in your contract. So make sure to read your personal service contract before you sign it. If that language is in the contract, you can ask the studio why since freelancing and additional work is an industry standard.
Is it possible to pick up enough freelance work to earn overtime?
If you take freelance work under daily or weekly terms, it’s possible to earn overtime if you work over the daily or weekly threshold in your contract.
Overtime is not possible with unit rates. For example, if you signed an agreement to do X work in eight hours and it takes you twelve, you are bound to the terms of the agreement.
If you are receiving unemployment and you take short-term freelance work, can you continue to collect unemployment.
No. All reported hours worked affect your ability to collect unemployment.
Who sets the terms of pay for freelance work?
Typically, a producer will have budgeted a specific amount for freelance work, but rates are determined based on the CBA. For example, daily employment rates are contracted at an additional 18% above the minimum job category rate.
Keep in mind that you can also negotiate for additional money, such as Box Rental, which is a fee for using your own personal equipment for studio work.
How quickly should people get paid for freelance work?
Daily and weekly rates are processed through weekly payroll.
For unit rates, Net 30 (payment within 30 days of billing) can be an issue, since some companies treat unit rate work like independent contractor work. If you are working for a studio under a unit rate, discuss expedited payment with your employer. If you are having an issue getting paid, contact a TAG Field Representative at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If a payment is late, can I charge late fees?
We can help you attempt to get late fees, but there is nothing in the CBA that covers this. That said, California Labor Law provides a grievance process for late payments. This claim must be made through the State Labor Commission. You can request help with this through the TAG Field Rep form.
When are taxes taken out of freelance pay?
If you are paid a unit, daily, or weekly rate for a signatory studio under the TAG CBA, the company should take out state and federal taxes from each paycheck and you will receive a W-2 at the end of the year. The exception is if you are working for a loan out company; in this case it is up to the employee/loan out company to deduct taxes.
How does payment work if you pick up additional freelance work outside your usual job category?
For example, if you are a Storyboard Artist and you take design work, you will likely be hired under a daily rate and will be paid the rate for the category in which you are working.
If you freelance for a company in another state or country, do your hours count toward your MPI benefits?
If you are out of state and work for a signatory studio, you can ask for your hours to contribute to your MPI benefits. Some studios will provide it. Otherwise need pushing. If they refuse, reach out to email@example.com to speak with a TAG Organizer about joining an organizing effort at that studio.
For studios in other countries, your hours do not count toward MPI benefits unless that company has U.S. entities. For example, Atomic Studios in Canada has U.S. entities that are signatories to the TAG CBA. A company must be a signatory studio with a TAG agreement for your hours to contribute to your MPI benefits.
What are the best practices for keeping track of your work hours?
If you’re splitting your hours on multiple projects, document the time spent on each one since companies need to pull money from the correct budgets.
There are apps where you can create different accounts for different hours, allowing you to clock in and out and download a spreadsheet. One such app is HoursTracker.
What should you bill and not bill for when doing freelance work?
This depends on the work you are doing and your working agreement with the studio. But some tasks are standard billable, including the following:
- Meetings to discuss your work.
- Prep time required for the work performed.
- Research time required for the work performed, such as the review of a bible for writers or set of designs for board artists.
You cannot bill for hours such as the time it takes to drive to the studio to do in-person work.
As more production crews are organized and production workers have a chance to freelance on the art side, can those hours count as overtime?
Yes, if that work is done within the same studio.
If a production worker is not part of an organized group, or their contract has not been ratified, but they are asked to do TAG contracted work at a signatory studio, the employer is obligated to pay the worker under TAG contract terms and contribute MPI hours for that work.
If the production worker is working under a TAG contract and, for example, they work 40 hours as a Production Assistant, and take on an additional 20 hours as a Character Designer with a higher rate (both jobs being done for the same studio), they must be paid the higher rate for the character design work. What they are paid in overtime depends on which work is done during the contracted eight-hour workday or 40-hour work week, and which work is done during the overtime hours.
Can you receive dismissal pay for freelance work?
This depends on how long you have been working at the studio. Dismissal pay is calculated based on hours worked during a three-month threshold. If you want to make a claim that you worked more than three months, you must demonstrate three-plus months’ worth of work in the totality of the work assigned.
Some signatory studio contracts differ in regard to dismissal pay from the TAG CBA, so make sure to read your contract carefully.
If you have been freelancing for a studio for more than a year, can you renegotiate for a journey rate?
Yes, if you are employed in a job with journey rates (unit rate jobs such as writers and board artists do not have journey levels.) You can use your work experience as a freelancer to negotiate for journey level rates. Studios must take industry experience into account. This experience can even include work for a theme park or video game if it is relevant. For help with this, contact a TAG Field Representative at firstname.lastname@example.org fill out the TAG Field Rep form.
In addition, if you’ve been doing long-term freelance work on a single show, ask why you are not being hired on as full-time staff. For help with this, you can also reach out to a TAG Field Rep.