Inside Female Directors’ Push for Better Parental Leave—in the DGA and Across Hollywood
When Jessica Dimmock first began her campaign to amend the directors’ guild insurance policies, she worried she was fighting a battle of one. As it turns out, she’s far from alone.
When Flint Town director Jessica Dimmock first decided to urge the Directors Guild of America to change its parental leave policies, one dim worry crept into the back of her mind: What if she was starting this battle only for herself? What if she was the only person who had lost health insurance because having a baby made it impossible for her to meet the minimum income requirement to stay on the plan? “In my gut I knew this wasn't going to be the case,” Dimmock told The Daily Beast in a recent interview. “But there was a slight moment where I was like, 'Huh, maybe this doesn't happen to people and I’m just super inefficient, or…’ I don’t know.”
Once the campaign launched, however, a flood of responses confirmed Dimmock was not alone in this frustration—not remotely. “And they weren't just the DGA,” Dimmock said. “They were also from the Writers Guild, they were also from producers, they were also from people that are part of [the Screen Actors Guild].”
For coverage under the DGA’s health insurance—a separate entity called the DGA-Producer Health Plan, which is jointly administered by the guild and producer associations representing the film, TV, and commercial production industries—members must surpass a minimum income threshold from directing guild projects within a 12-month period. Having a baby complicates that task for obvious reasons—and as a result, after Dimmock gave birth in 2017, she lost her guild insurance. She switched to COBRA, which carries higher premiums, at a time when she needed to visit the doctor more often than ever. Dimmock’s directing partner, the baby’s father, lost his insurance for a quarter but, she noticed, was also not as intensely impacted overall.
And so last summer, once Dimmock was back on her feet and directing once more, she decided to explore what she might do. By December, she had gathered dozens of signatures on a letter calling for new parents to be granted extensions to the time period required to meet their minimums, which she presented to the Eastern Council Board. The proposition extends to all new parents, including those who have adopted.
“They were receptive and they said, ‘We’d like to explore this,’” Dimmock said of the council’s reaction, “but there was nothing else that happened.” Dimmock took her campaign public in January ahead of the DGA’s national board meeting in the hopes of keeping the pressure on. But that gathering came and went. The path forward at this point is unclear; she has received no next-steps.
This fight is particularly crucial for the entertainment industry, in which many people are either working as independent contractors or are self employed, Paid Leave U.S. director of advocacy Annie Sartor notes. Such professionals, she said, tend to fall through the gaps in California’s Paid Family Leave program. Because of that, it’s “all the more important to find access to parental leave outside of that more traditional structure.”
To Dimmock, the main benefit of parental leave is not only the ability to hit pause and adjust to life with a child, but also to get started on the next project. “I think it’s really about giving women or new parents, not only having gone through childbirth but like giving someone who has just brought a kid into their life a minute to reconvene and get back out there,” Dimmock said. “And I think that for me was the biggest hurdle. You're already on that train; it's stepping off the train and then trying to get back on that I think is really, really hard.”
The minimum salary requirement to maintain insurance is just under $36,000; an hour-long episode of television, a DGA representative told Variety, would earn its director roughly $47,000. But those are coveted, elite positions, Dimmock noted. That fact also does little for directors who don’t work in broadcast specifically, since salary ranges can vary widely across mediums. A representative for the DGA told Variety toward the end of January, “The matter was recently brought to the DGA, and we have asked the Plans to examine it.” DGA director of media relations Lily Bedrossian declined The Daily Beast’s request for further comment on where the effort stands now, citing the organization’s media blackout for contract negotiations.
Because decisions regarding DGA healthcare are left to DGA Plans, the guild’s board will not be able to snap its fingers and make these changes happen; instead they must press the matter within Plans itself. But the consequences for women who do not meet the minimum can be severe, and the longer the issue goes unaddressed, more women will find themselves without insurance at a time when they need it most.
Take, for instance, Amanda Micheli, whose documentary short La Corona earned her an Oscar nomination in 2008. Micheli gave birth on Dec. 31, 2017, and had worked just enough that year to make the minimum, or so she’d thought. An audit commenced months later, in May 2018. Last December she was ordered to reimburse DGA Plans for claims paid on her family’s behalf after DGA Plans retroactively revoked insurance for herself, her husband, and her son.
“I had worked my whole life to try to get into the DGA,” Micheli told The Daily Beast. In addition to the professional achievement and the opportunities that came with guild membership, another major draw had been the health insurance. “Everybody knows that the healthcare is a really huge part of being in DGA,” Micheli said. And although she emphasized that the guild itself had not had a chance to respond to her case—and will not until April—she took issue with the way the DGA-Producer Pension and Health Plans has handled things.
“It's just caused me anxiety as a new mother and as a mid-career director,” Micheli said of the whole ordeal. “It's made me question my career path. It’s made me question my decision to be a mother. It’s made me question the guild. It’s made me question huge choices in my life and parts of my identity… I would say over the last few years [the audit] has been the single hardest thing in my life.”
“I don’t think there [were] nefarious intentions,” Micheli added, “but it really has been a huge challenge for me in my first few years in parenthood.”
At a time when female directors in particular have been shut out at awards show after awards show, this effort further underscores the ways in which Hollywood and its constituent parts tend to marginalize women.
“The whole thing is systemic,” Honey Boy director and Free the Work founder Alma Har’el told The Daily Beast. “The way that women are treated or looked at in our occupation and others, too, is expressed in many ways through the industry.” Beyond discrimination and misogyny and unconscious bias, Har’el pointed out, there are systemic regulations that never took women into account in the first place. “There’s just so many expressions of the fact that women are not being included in the same way as men, and one of them is the awards and the other can be health insurance,” Har’el said. “Of course it’s all connected.”
Amy Schumer, one of the more than 50 DGA members who signed Dimmock’s letter, echoed how important this fight is in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “Pregnancy isn’t rare,” she said. “Everyone was born. Stop acting surprised when people get pregnant. It’s not something that only affects a small amount of the population. We should implement practices that expect this and not penalize it. Our industry wants to make things more equitable. The DGA has the opportunity to clear an obstacle and demonstrate what equitable policy looks like and I hope they do.”
The call for these changes has spread not only within the DGA, but across multiple entertainment industry guilds as well. Sartor told The Daily Beast that since Paid Leave U.S. launched the campaign with Dimmock, she’d spoken with members of SAG-AFTRA, an illustrators’ guild, and the WGA. As large companies like Walmart and Starbucks shore up their own parental leave policies, Sartor pointed out, it should be no surprise that workers in Hollywood have taken notice.
A source detailed similar efforts within the WGA to The Daily Beast, and said the parental leave issue is on the agenda for the guild’s Committee of Women Writers’ meeting Monday. A member of the WGA’s negotiating committee will be present to answer member questions, the source said. As the guild enters its negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the source noted, the organization wants solidarity among all of its members, in case a strike becomes necessary. So far the guild, which negotiated to grant members eight weeks of parental leave in 2017, has been proactive and communicative. A representative for the WGA declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
“Everyone’s kind of wringing their hands like, ‘What can we do for women? What can we do for women?’” the source said. “It’s like, ‘Look at the money. Do you think the money might have something to do with it?’”
Although the DGA has yet to divulge what might happen next, those who have backed the campaign remain hopeful. Har’el noted that the DGA has made considerable efforts to bolster diversity and recognize marginalized talent, and that from what she’s seen and heard, the DGA Board of Directors seems to be taking this seriously. “It’s going to be a process of them figuring out how to fight for us,” she said. And it’s not just women who should be speaking up, she added; men need to raise their voices around this issue as well. “It’s a fight for parents, and it’s a fight for every household that is parenting. As long as we all speak up and stay united... This is the idea behind unions—to get organized.”
“I do have faith in the DGA because the DGA is a union,” Har’el said. “But the way unions work in our reality is that you have to really fight for everything.”