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November 10, 2003

Coming to a Theatre Near You: Protecting Child Performers!

by Nicole Flender, Co-Chair, Equity's Young Performers Committee

Equity Wins Passage of New York State's New "Coogan" Law: Pataki Signs Child Performers Education and Trust Act of 2003 Following Intensive Lobbying Effort

AEA-AFTRA-SAG Press Conference: Monday, November 17th at 10 AM Actors' Equity, 165 West 46th Street - 14th Floor

A child's acting career will no longer be child's play, thanks to the outstanding efforts of Actors' Equity and members of Equity's Young Performers Committee. Governor Pataki has just signed the Child Performers Education and Trust Act of 2003, the new law which will require that 15% of all child performers' earnings be set aside until the age of 18, protecting the earnings of minors in the entertainment industry. The bill was patterned after California's "Coogan" Law, named for Jackie Coogan, one of the highest paid film actors of his day, who discovered he had no money and no legal recourse when he became 18.

"Bravo to the Governor and our New York State Legislators for signing this important act," said Actors' Equity President Patrick Quinn. "In our volatile industry, child and juvenile actors are particularly vulnerable to financial pressures, so it is important to recognize and protect their interests in New York State. On behalf of our membership, we applaud this new law and look forward to its implementation."

Passage of the bill involved an intensive lobbying efforts by Equity Councillor Nicole Flender, who is Chair of Equity's Young Performers' Committee, Equity staff member Willie Boston, and Committee Vice Chair Alan Simon, along with other committee members and representatives from SAG and AFTRA. This past summer, the contingent went to Albany to meet with State Senate sponsor Guy Velella, Chair of the Senate Labor Committee, and Assembly sponsor, Helene Weinstein, Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee; Susan John, Chair of the Assembly Labor Committee, and Steven Sanders, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee.

Paul Petersen, a former Mouseketeer and Donna Reed Show child star, and committee member Robert Lydiard, a former child actor, spoke of the need for legislation to protect child performers, citing exploitation from family members and employers in the entertainment industry.

"Undoubtedly, the most persuasive lobbyists were the Equity, SAG and AFTRA child performers who accompanied us on the trip," said Nicole. The performers included Ricky Ashley (HOLLYWOOD ARMS, RAGTIME), Alyssa May Gold (DIVINE SECRETS OF THE YAYA SISTERHOOD), Julianna Mauriello (OKLAHOMA!) and Samantha Browne-Walters (LIFE WITH BONNIE, THIRD WATCH). Articulate and quick-witted (not to mention cute), Alyssa related how a California minor's education protection through the Coogan Act followed her to a film set in North Carolina, benefiting all the minors on the set so that they all ultimately got tutored. Equally compelling was her story of being forced to leave the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus because they did not provide a tutor during the numerous daytime rehearsals. Julianna's mom reinforced the need for the education provision in the act when she related that her daughter had missed 35 days of school for the Broadway production of OKLAHOMA! and, according to current New York State guidelines, was technically at risk for being held back."

Provisions of the Bill

The bill has several provisions. It establishes, for the first time, that 15% of a child's earnings must be held in a trust account for them until their 18th birthday. On the education front, employers must provide a teacher, who is either New York State certified or has credentials recognized by the State, to any child performer who cannot attend school due to his or her employment. Equity and the League of American Theatres and Producers recognize this in their collective bargaining agreement with producers, but it is not mandated legally. When a teacher is provided, the performers will not be marked absent from school while working. Finally, parents will be responsible for getting work permits from the Department of Labor for their children, renewable after six months. Employers will apply, with a fee, to the Labor Department for certificates of eligibility to employ a child, which lasts three years.

"We are extremely grateful to the sponsors and supporters of this legislation for recognizing the importance of protecting the education and earnings of our children when they work," said Flender and Boston.

On Monday, November 17th, Equity President Patrick Quinn, SAG President Melissa Gilbert and AFTRA First National Vice President Roberta Reardon will be joined by other union officials, actors, producers and celebrities in the Council Room of Actors' Equity, 165 West 46th Street (10 AM) to thank the bill's sponsors and kick off an awareness campaign to educate the industry about the bill which will be enacted in 2004. Equity is planning a seminar for parents of young performers and will publish a Guide for Young Performers in the near future.

For further information about the Child Performers Education and Trust Act, contact Willie Boston at 212-869-8530.

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