The Actors Fund: There to Help 600 Members

An interview with The Fund’s Keith McNutt

April 14, 2020
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In times of crisis, The Actors Fund goes into immediate action. A human services organization that services all branches of the entertainment industry, The Actors Fund provides emergency financial assistance, affordable housing, health care, insurance counseling secondary career development and other services.

Local 600 partners with The Actors Fund to administer social services to members including the Local 600 Hardship Fund. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic, The Actors Fund rep Emily Lerner Garlick has been processing a huge number of member applications for assistance. The Fund has seen its requests for services skyrocket.

600LIVE! spoke to The Actors Fund Western Region Director Keith McNutt.

600LIVE!: How has demand for The Actors Fund services been impacted by the pandemic?
Keith McNutt: In the last three weeks, we went from 70 applications a week for emergency financial assistance to about 200 a day. That goes for people’s rent, utilities, doctor bills, health insurance premiums, food and living expenses. We’ve just gone over the $2 million mark in grants in three weeks. So we’ve gone through a year’s worth of financial assistance in three weeks. We normally do about $2 million a year in grants across the country and help about 15,000 people nationally.

600LIVE!: How many people is that serving?
KM: Most of these are $1,000 grants, so it’s about $2 million to about 2,000 people. I don’t have full data on this but I talked to my director of social services. In the last week she processed 80 grants one day and another 110 grants another day and not a single applicant had more than $3,000 in their savings account.

So it’s affecting people immediately. I think it’s reflecting what we’ve heard about people’s individual finances for years: most Americans don’t have savings to last them more than a month in a crisis. People in all walks of the industry, especially the people who are freelancing in their craft are in that same financial boat across disciplines, and across the country.

600LIVE!: Who does The Actors Fund serve?
KM: We are the only entertainment charity that is open to everybody performing in the entertainment industry everywhere in the country. All the other relief funds are some subset of that. So we’re the umbrella organization that can combine forces with all of the other charities regardless of their specific population because we incorporate everybody in our mission.

600LIVE!: How long does it typically take between application and payout?
KM: Under normal circumstances, our response time is 24 hours. But we’ve had 7,000 calls for help in the last three weeks, so we are catching up. We are about two weeks out to respond to people.

The good news is that in the first week of all of this, we transitioned all of our services online. The applications are online and the documentation that they have to submit for their eligibility is all uploadable to The Actors Fund website. Communications is handled through emails so people don’t have to have long conversations.

We’re now processing people who have filed electronically as opposed to people who called or emailed. So we’ve caught up with all of those and we’re processing much more quickly now. We’re hoping that the two-week window will shrink even further.

600LIVE!: How does this crisis compare to previous disaster relief efforts?
KM: The good news is we have been doing disaster and crisis work going all the way back to the AIDS epidemic when we were really the first on the ground in New York and Los Angeles getting assistance to people immediately. Since then we have worked through NYC’s 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and Sandy and California’s wildfires and earthquakes. So we were able to mobilize our crisis response team pretty quickly to get everything moving in our crisis mode. This situation is a step beyond the disaster response that we have done in the past because the volume is just so high and everyone in the country is affected, not just one city or one state.

600LIVE!: What misinformation about your services are you hearing from callers?
KM: The biggest misconception about The Actors Fund is that it only helps actors. Local 600 members have gotten really great information for a long time to correct that, but a lot of the world hears the name and they go on to the next agency.

One thing we are letting people know is that we are doing one-time grants for everybody. Right now, it’s not possible to come back for a second or third grant even though it’s needed because we’re trying to make sure that as many people as possible get some help from all the different donors that are coming together to make this happen.

600LIVE!: What do you want people to know about THE ACTORS FUND services?
KM: We understand that $1,000 is not going to solve everybody’s problems, but it helps. We’re trying to use the grant money to help buy people time, to help them plan, to help them get to the next step, to help them connect with whatever unemployment benefits or the federal tax credit that’s coming through, the Medi-Cal system whatever else they need health-wise or financially to try to keep their own house afloat.

I think it is helpful for people to know that we are working with our fellow nonprofits in the industry and trying to coordinate so that everybody gets something.

600LIVE!: Tell us about some of these donors and the generosity that has allowed The Actors Fund to help meet the demand.
KM: We are so grateful for the help starting with Local 600’s donation, but also the IATSE International that provided $1 million to us and the Motion Picture and Television Fund and the SAG-AFTRA Foundation. Netflix has come on board.

We’ve got lots of individuals that are stepping up. Rosie O’Donnell rebooted her old TV show for a one night only broadcast. She went for three and a half hours interviewing all of her old friends and raised over $600,000 in one night. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just came through with a $2 million gift.

We have a new fund called the Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund which is for people that are earning under $50,000 a year who are going to be hurt really quickly. They have raised over $550,000 already.

When you go through a crisis like this, it’s difficult and painful. The other side is that you get to see people who really care about their community who are stepping up and trying to help, and that’s amazing to be a part of.

600LIVE!: With the increased demand for services, how are you communicating with clients?
KM: We want to make sure we’re serving the whole person, not just understanding what a financial need is in the moment. We’ve put together a pretty robust set of resources on the website that are available whether you apply or not. You can access the resource list on the home page and figure out what else might be there in the community to help you financially or with other needs.

Our financial wellness classes are continuing online. Our career center is continuing its career coaching online and our classes are online. Our health insurance counselors that we use in partnership with MPTF are still on the phones every day talking about the implications for health insurance and affordable health care. So all of those things are still happening and available to people.

600LIVE!: Can you speak about Emily Lerner Garlick, Local 600’s Representative, and the work she has been doing during the crisis?
KM: Emily is working overtime. She is processing the emergency grants for Local 600 members but she is also taking their calls and dealing with issues they have about benefits and with other resources in the community. So far we’re hearing really positive feedback about her work. We’re really thrilled with the partnership. We’re grateful that Local 600 has taken us on and provided that kind of leadership to give specific services to their members.

600LIVE!: Is there anything else Local 600 members should know about the services the Fund is able to provide during this crisis?
KM: For Local 600 members, don’t worry about us being overwhelmed. Worry about what you need and come to us and let us know. If it’s going to take Emily a week to get back to you, she’ll let you know that.

The Actors Fund exists to help people not feel so isolated. We’re still getting calls about all sorts of issues that we’re trying to respond to as much as we can. We will continue to be here. We’ll continue to be partners with people and we may need a little more patience than usual, but we will get back to people. We’re not forgetting anybody.

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