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Production Meal Penalties & IATSE’s Updated Rules

Original publish date: November 24, 2021

Meal penalties on set can quickly add up to thousands of dollars in a given week for a film or TV crew. And careful production scheduling and planning have never been more important, thanks to newly minted IATSE union rules concerning meal breaks and penalties for violations. These rules and increased fees are designed to financially motivate productions to provide employees with timely sit-down meals. 

Meal penalties are calculated per crew member for every 30 minutes of elapsed break time without a sit-down lunch or dinner. This can have serious financial implications for your production’s budget. Without proper planning, a reliable pulse on set workflow and detailed documentation, meal penalties can and will pile up, per cast and crew member, every time there’s a violation of a union agreement or state law. 

We’ll start with the basics of meal penalties, guide you through some exceptions to help minimize those penalties and finally take a look at the game-changing rules of the IATSE Basic Agreement ratified in late 2021.  

Do state-mandated meal penalties impact production? 

Even non-union productions need to consider state laws concerning required meal breaks and penalties. Most states protect minors and require they are provided breaks. A handful of states, including California and New York, require breaks for all employees.  

Crew members in California, for example, are entitled to a thirty-minute unpaid break within six hours of start time. Unless work is finished at the end of six hours, a meal must be called. If a meal isn’t called, workers are owed an hour’s wage for the missed deadline as a penalty and they must still take a break.    

For virtually all productions, six hours won’t cut it. Twelve-hour days are typical. Varying call times, complicated set-ups, location shooting and more make meals and rest tricky to manage.  

Union agreements provide clear guidelines and solutions to help producers manage their time and avoid meal penalties in good faith. Make no mistake, if there is a violation, there will be a penalty.   

How do entertainment unions dictate meal penalties? 

Entertainment labor unions go further than states in regulating meals, exceptions and penalties. Each union has a specific set of rules regarding meals and it is important to review and understand each before you start to roll. 

From call to lunch, only six hours may elapse. At the six-hour mark, if lunch hasn’t been called, the production will incur its first meal penalty, for every affected member of the crew and cast. (Some crew or cast members may have a later call time and therefore miss out on the penalty.)

Depending on their union, each employee will be owed a different amount for the first, second and third violation and violations thereafter, increasing incrementally every thirty minutes that elapses.  

These rates may differ from one production to another, depending on whether you’re running an independent production using separately negotiated agreements or working with a studio that is party to the standard collective bargaining agreement. 

When the 30-minute lunch break ends, the six-hour clock resets before another 30-minute break is required. You can avoid a second break by wrapping for the day before or on the six-hour mark.       

If production runs past its twelfth paid hour of work, without a meal break, production will face a meal penalty.   

Union rates vary; check in with each union you employ or leave it to your payroll company to track penalties. Media Services will calculate overages based on timecards automatically, and keep your project in compliance with state and union rules. Talk to an expert today.  

Need union labor rates? Get the free Showbiz Labor Guide

What are exceptions producers can use to avoid meal penalties? 

Productions must abide by union rules to avoid costly penalties. Thankfully, if your day is running behind or you need to finish a set-up before breaking for lunch, union agreements offer some reprieve.  

Don’t take advantage of these devices. It may reflect poorly on you if you plan ahead of time to use these methods, rather than using them in good faith when you actually need them.  

Realigning Early Calls for Lunch 

Often, a certain cast or crew member may have an earlier call than others. A set designer may need to be in early to make some finishing touches on a set, or a hair and makeup person may need to arrive early to start looks on a performer. This staggered time of entry can cause issues come lunch time.  

SAG-AFTRA sheds light on the non-deductible meal, your answer to fixing this issue of staggered call times and meals.  

The non-deductible meal (“NDB” in industry speak, since the meal is almost always breakfast) is a 15-minute paid break for performers and employees who have to arrive earlier than the general call. This break must be called within two hours of the employee’s call time to work properly. The crew member doesn’t clock out, and the provided meal can be cold – usually continental breakfast type foods. 

Without this realignment break, an employee’s lunch would have to begin sooner than everyone else’s and wreak havoc for the shooting schedule or incur a meal penalty.  

Using this device effectively allows a producer to realign these early calls with everyone else’s schedule, thus avoiding a meal penalty, and allowing everyone to start lunch at the same time.    

Asking for Grace on a Tight Schedule 

With your first meal fast approaching, you may realize that a particular set-up isn’t going to finish on time.  

Calling “grace” gives the production precisely 12 minutes past the sixth hour of work, most often to finish a set-up. This may be necessary if you’re shooting the last take or two of the last set-up on a particular stage or in a location with a time limit or for other scheduling purposes.  

With ample foresight, you can seek out department heads ahead of lunch and ask the crew for permission to call grace. Every crew member and department head must agree to grace before it can be called.

Only when the entire cast and crew agrees to a grace period, can it be enacted. It also should be noted in the production report.

Calling an Extension on a Meal 

Once the first meal is over, the clock resets. Another six hours may elapse before a second hot sit-down meal is owed. If you are unable to wrap for the day at the end of the sixth hour, you will incur a meal penalty.  

Again, with the crew’s permission, you may call for an extension. If the end of the day is fast approaching and you don’t see the possibility of wrapping on time, it is critical to ask the cast and crew before the end of the sixth hour for an extension. 

An extension grants the production another 30 minutes to finish its business for the day without incurring a meal penalty. At the end of the 30-minute extension, the cast and crew must be dismissed for the day.  

If crew members are still working past the 30-minute extension, it’s as though the extension wasn’t called at all. They will be owed two meal penalties, the original penalty that would’ve incurred had an extension not been called and a second penalty because another thirty minutes has elapsed since a meal was owed.   

Walking Meal to Wrap

A walking meal is another option for the second meal at wrap time to avoid incurring a meal penalty. You will have to ask your cast and crew for permission before you can call a walking meal as well.  

With this device, you are able to avoid incurring a penalty and finish wrap more quickly while the crew is able to eat and work simultaneously. Keep in mind, you will be paying your crew at their agreed upon rate for a walking meal; they should not clock out.  

On top of not paying meal penalties, this method can allow you to wrap on time and avoid costly overtime.  

French Hours 

A far less often observed scheduling method, known as French Hours, stands alone. It’s closer to a production scheduling strategy than it is something used on the fly to avoid penalties. 

This method of production asks the crew to forgo meal breaks altogether in exchange for a shortened day, usually ten hours or less, with the promise of easily accessible food throughout the day and the advantage of accomplishing more overall more quickly.  Keep in mind, the accessible food must be substantial; M&Ms and Red Vines on the crafty table won’t cut it.   

Unions don’t regulate French Hours, which means the entire cast and crew will have to sign off on the idea ahead of the shoot. It is important to retain this permission in the form of a written agreement before the shoot to avoid incurring meal penalties.   

How does 2021’s IATSE agreement affect meal penalties? 

The IATSE-AMPTP agreement that was ratified in late 2021 introduced a new and more complex system of meal penalties to discourage productions from cutting into meal time, while providing union workers with less interruptions to sit-down, off-the-clock meals. 

Meal penalties are now broken down further, to specify increased penalties for first, second, third, fourth, fifth and succeeding penalties per half hour a meal is delayed, or the appropriate fraction thereof. 

Also note, for the first time, Cinema Technicians of Local 700 are party to this agreement and will also incur meal penalties if union rules are not followed.

The biggest change applies to all crew employees covered by the Basic Agreement: weekly meal penalties. Regardless of daily meal penalties, if a crew member accrues 20 or more meal penalties in a week of work, that employee is owed one hour of pay at their prevailing rate for every half hour or fraction of each delay. Their “prevailing rate” could be 1.5x, 2x or more by that point – demonstrating just how quickly meal penalties can add up to big bucks under the IATSE agreement.

With these coming into play, it is imperative to schedule meticulously and avoid meal penalties whenever possible. Productions stand to lose greater chunks of their budget to penalties than ever before if not properly avoided or planned for.

Save Money by Avoiding Meal Penalties

When a shoot is running overtime and meal penalties are looming, consider your options carefully to keep violations at a minimum and crew morale higher. With these tools at your disposal and some sophisticated scheduling, you can avoid meal penalties altogether. Always check state laws and the union agreements you must abide by, and plan accordingly; it could make a real difference for your bottom line.

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