The debate of performers being independent contractors or employees is an issue that comes up often in my practice. Whether it is an injured or infected performer, a director worried about his/her liability for an on-set injury or a studio owner asking my assistance in securing workers’ compensation coverage for his/her company, this is an issue that remains a hotly debated topic. Many in the industry still believe that for purposes of worker safety laws performers are independent contractors and not the employees of the producer paying them, directly or indirectly. This cannot be farther from the truth. Even during the open meetings with Cal-OSHA in June 2011 I heard numerous performers and directors declare themselves independent contractors during the public comments. Only to have Ms. Gold of Cal-OSHA flatly deny that issue.
Unfortunately or fortunately depending on what side of the debate you are on, a worker cannot simply declare themselves to be something. A worker’s status is dependent upon statutes and case law, not what the beliefs of the employer OR the employee happens to be. For this article to truly explain all the relevant statutes and case law surrounding the independent contractor vs employee debate would require hundreds of pages if not an entire book. Therefore, for the sake of brevity it is perhaps easier to select two California cases that are on point with this issue and illustrates for those reading this article that this issued is well settled.
Often porn performers compare themselves to both actors as well as stunt-people. The job of a porn performer can be said to be a blend of the acting and performing risky, albeit safe, stunts on set. Many inaccurately believe that stuntpeople and porn performers cannot be an employee under the traditional definition of such since they are only hired for the day or even a few hours. This is simply not true in California and in most states ( Note: It is possible though to be an employee for worker safety laws but an independent contractor for tax purposes).
Stuntpeople have been considered employees of the production company hiring them for at least 50 years in California. In Durae v. Industrial Accident Commission, 206 Cal.App.2d 691 (1962), the Second District Court of Appeals (this happens to be the court with jurisdiction over all of Los Angeles County) determined that a stuntman was indeed an employee for workers’ compensation purposes.
Petitioner is a motion picture and television actor. He was engaged to make a personal appearance at a rodeo in Pueblo, Colorado, in August 1960. His act was to include a demonstration to the audience of how motion picture and television shows were filmed. As a part of this demonstration, a man would ride a horse at a fast pace across the area, petitioner would fire a shot at the rider, and the rider would fall from the horse, taking what, among stuntmen, is commonly called a “saddle fall” to the ground.
Originally, the Industrial Accident Commission (the precursor of today’s Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board) ruled against the injured employee, William Mansker, finding that he was indeed an independent contractor. Mansker appealed the decision and was granted benefits by the IAC. The employer, Donald Durae, then appealed the case to the California Court of Appeals where Mansker’s award of benefits was upheld and he was determined to be an employee and not an independent contractor. The court went on to state;
This finding is compatible with the findings affirmed by the Supreme Court in two cases somewhat comparable on their facts. In Drillon v. Industrial Acc. Com., 17 Cal.2d 346 [110 P.2d 64], one who hired a jockey to ride his horse in one race was held to be an employer on the basis that he had the right to control the manner in which the jockey rode the horse. In Schaller v. Industrial Acc. Com., supra, 11 Cal.2d 46, the petitioner made separate contracts with four trapeze aerialists that each would perform his specialty for a 20-week engagement. He then agreed to provide the four aerialists as an act in a traveling show. He was held to be an employer although he in no manner directed the act or the stunts of the individual aerialists.
It is clear from the holding in this case that stuntpeople have been considered employees of their contracting companies for at least the past fifty years. This ruling is consistent with the current state of California law. Stuntpeople remain employees in California, as do most workers.
Some porn performers may consider themselves more akin to actors then stuntpeople though. However, just as stuntpeople are considered employees of the production company so are actors, even those hired and paid through a talent agency. It is a misguided belief that, by a production company not paying the talent but rather the agent, they can avoid being held liable for a work related injury. It is also a misguided belief by large production companies that hiring directors or smaller sub-contracting production companies to actually produce the content will shield them from liability. In California, we have a law referred to as the general-special employer rule. Which basically states that if Company A hires a sub-contractor -> Company B, to perform services for them and Company B hires their own employees then Company A has a duty to insure that Company B has workers’ compensation insurance. If Company A fails to “pull” the workers’ compensation insurance information of Company B and an employee of Company B suffers an injury then Company A and their workers’ compensation carrier will be liable to provide coverage for that injury.
In Johnson v. Berkofsky-Barret Productions, Inc. (1989) 211 Cal. App. 3d 1067, an actor, hired for the day, suffered a shoulder injury while filming a television commercial for IBM. He attempted to claim that he WAS NOT an employee of the production company and rather an employee of his agent so he could file a lawsuit in civil court against the production company ( Note: The injured worker preferred to be an independent contractor so that he could sue under a civil tort theory and recover pain and suffering which is not possible to recover under a workers’ compensation claim ).
Johnson, an actor in television commercials, obtained acting jobs through a company called L’Image. Generally, L’Image directed Johnson to the shooting location of the commercial and advised him how to dress. The commercial production company then paid L’Image for Johnson’s acting services and L’Image, in turn, paid Johnson after deducting its percentage fee.
Johnson, like many porn performers, was not paid directly by the production company but rather by his agent. The court then went on to discuss the employee vs. independent contractor distinction;
Labor Code section 3351 defines an employee as “every person in the service of an employer under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied, oral or written, whether lawfully or unlawfully employed, …”
An independent contractor is “any person who renders service for a specified recompense for a specified result, under the control of his principal as to the result of his work only and not as to the means by which such result is accomplished.” (Lab. Code, § 3353.)
 “The label placed by the parties on their relationship is not dispositive, and subterfuges are not countenanced. [Citations.] … [¶] …. [¶] … ‘[The] principal test of an employment relationship is whether the person to whom service is rendered has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired. …’ [Citations.] [¶]
The court then analyzed the six factors to determine employment status under S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations (1989) 48 Cal. 3d 341 and determined that;
We therefore conclude, as a matter of law, Johnson was an employee of BBP at the time of the accident and therefore he is limited to workers’ [211 Cal. App. 3d 1074] compensation as his sole and exclusive remedy for damages resulting from personal injuries. (Lab. Code, § 3602.)
In conclusion, it is clear from Durae, Johnson and Borello, that the type of control that a production company has over a porn performer while on set (hence being “directed” by a “director”) will make them liable for workers’ compensation benefits due to an on-set injury. Further, a production company should want an injured performer to be an employee, otherwise that injured performer could sue the production company for damages resulting from pain and suffering. In the case of an on-set transmission of HIV those damages could result in millions of dollars being awarded to the infected performer. However, under workers compensation no such recovery is available. Workers’ compensation actually protects the studios more so then the performers, if a company does indeed have coverage.
In a future article I will discuss the ramifications for not having workers’ compensation insurance under California law.