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They don’t act or write, but the Hollywood strikes are putting them out of work

<i>Courtesy Pam Elyea</i><br/>Pam Elyea
Courtesy Pam Elyea
Pam Elyea

By Natasha Chen, CNN

Los Angeles (CNN) — On Saturday, a group of set and prop warehouse owners are getting together for a “Crewlateral Yard Sale,” hoping to make a few bucks selling inventory while orders for movie and TV sets have come to a complete halt over the last two months.

Hollywood productions drastically slowed down as the Writers Guild of America went on strike on May 2, and what remaining productions there were have nearly all stopped after SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, began a strike on July 14, the first time the two guilds have been on strike simultaneously since the 1960s.

Those who serve film and TV productions, but who may never be credited and are not party to any disputed contract, say they are held hostage by the overall situation. The estimated financial impact of these two strikes could be at least $4 billion globally, according to the Milken Institute’s Chief Global Strategist, shutting down set design shops, craft services, janitorial contractors and a host of other businesses that rely on the movie industry to make money.

Pam Elyea, owner of ‘History for Hire’ sets and props, is organizing the yard sale in her business parking lot, adjacent to the warehouse where she still owes $45,000 in rent every month. She expects that her business and others can make a few sales while their regular income has run dry, but she’s also hopeful the event brings together a sense of unity in troubling times.

Elyea, and other small business owners have told CNN about the various ways they’re getting through the dry spell: cutting hours, laying off staff, or temporarily closing their doors. All have pleaded for the studios and guilds to come back to the table.

“I think there’s a lot of hurt.”

Elyea said she anticipated the strikes earlier this year and remembers what it was like to survive the 100-day WGA strike of 2007-08. She gathered staff early on and especially warned newer employees.

“You need to plan ahead. And you know, don’t be buying cars having to make big car payments, and don’t be making big plans with money you don’t have,” she told them.

Elyea is currently down to 10 employees from 15 when the WGA strike began this May. She’s looking at potential future layoffs as well.

“Sometimes you get the feeling that people are more interested in continuing on this problem than solving it,” Elyea said. “At one point, ask yourself what’s more important, this relationship or getting my way?”

She said the pandemic was rough on her business too, but at least there were PPP loans available. Elyea wishes there would be some kind of ‘business interruption fund’ now.

CNN has reached out to the Los Angeles mayor’s office to ask if city leaders might consider such action.

Some of Elyea’s colleagues have made more drastic changes.

Corri Levelle, who owns Sandy Rose Floral, laid off all but one employee.

“I know I can get through it, but it takes years to recover,” Levelle told CNN in early July. “It took me probably two to three years to recover from the strike in 2007, 2008.”

“We have been essential”

When the WGA strike started in early May, about 50 janitors who are part of SEIU United Service Workers West were laid off from studios who no longer needed their services, as productions ceased.

Natalia Lopez told CNN in June that without her $20.74 per hour wage, she had shifted her grocery list to just basics, like rice and beans. Lopez was one of hundreds of SEIU members who marched through Culver City on June 15 to join writers on the picket line outside Sony Studios and Amazon Studios.

Yolanda Cendejas was also laid off from her janitorial job at Paramount Studios.

When CNN visited her at home in early July, Cendejas showed bags of plastic bottles she had collected to turn in for cash.

Since then, Cendejas said, through a translator, “In addition to collecting recyclable bottles to redeem the cash value, I have also been sewing garments together for sale. That helps add a few extra dollars to our weekly budget. We’re doing what we can to make ends meet.”

Cendejas has diabetes, and her medication is now too expensive out-of-pocket since her health insurance ran out on July 1st. She said she’s hoping she can be added onto her husband’s insurance. She walks daily in a neighborhood park to make sure she gets doctor-recommended exercise.

Her family has also cut back on groceries, forgoing the ingredients for her favorite posole dish, a hominy and meat based soup.

“Right now, we can’t afford some of those simple luxuries like going out for a hamburger. We buy foods and ingredients that are cheap but that will go far in terms of feeding my family. We’ll weather this storm, too,” she said.

Both Cendejas and Lopez told CNN they are union members and fully supportive of writers and actors getting a fair deal, even as it’s hurting their own incomes. Cendejas told CNN the studios should recognize the people essential at every level to get the work done.

“We don’t want to end up homeless or on the streets, but if the studios refuse to give workers a fair contract, that could happen to thousands of workers. Put your greed aside so we can all get back to work and make our living,” Cendejas said.

“It’s like half of Culver City has left”

Chester Massetti took over the restaurant Victor Jr’s, from his cousin in 2021, when the business was just recovering from a pandemic that had rocked the restaurant industry.

“I think things incrementally have gotten better since then – but never the same as pre-Covid. And then all of a sudden, now we have the strike, which is kind of like you’re slapped in the face back down on the ground again,” Massetti said.

Actors, game show hosts, and executives have all gotten pizza by the slice, Greek salads, or Philly cheesesteaks from the small shop on Washington Blvd in Culver City, right across from Sony Studios, and not far from Amazon Studios and Apple TV+ offices.

Massetti said business is down 20% to 40% in July, compared to April before the strikes began. He said there are no more large catering orders for productions, and one of the first things people do when they lose income is stop going out to eat.

He also notices a difference in the atmosphere: “It’s like half of Culver City has left, be it from the from the strike, and also people that are residents on vacation.”

Massetti has had to cut employee hours and adjust to a later opening time.

Rosie Blosser, co-owner of King’s Deli down the street from the Warner Bros. lot, also told CNN in early July that they have lost most catering orders. Warner Bros. and CNN are both owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.

Since the SAG-AFTRA strike, “Sales are still down. I appreciate the support from our community and regular customers but I worry for them as well. The longer it takes for an agreement to be made, the more it will impact everyone. We are all feeling it, individuals and small businesses alike,” Blosser said.

King’s Deli, known for its pastrami sandwiches, has served writers, actors and studio heads alike. Blosser said she’s hoping to survive by continuing to let people know her deli is available to “take the stress off our customers by providing delicious sandwiches.”

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