For Christian Pellot, most weeks begin the same way, with a text from an unfamiliar number telling him to show up at a specific address. When he arrives, he is told to sign a wage form, with the hours and pay rate to be filled in at a later date. Then his work begins, sitting for days and nights in a parked vehicle to save street spots for any one of the scores of television, movie and commercial productions filmed around New York each year.
In a class-action complaint filed this week, Mr. Pellot and more than 100 other parking production assistants — almost all of them black or Hispanic — charged that several major studios and production companies that do business in the greater New York area systematically underpay these workers, deny them minimum wage and overtime pay to which they are legally entitled, forge time sheets, and threaten to withhold future jobs if they do not comply.
At a news conference outside the now-closed Ziegfeld Theater, several plaintiffs gathered on Wednesday to describe their experiences working on movies like “Trainwreck,” “American Hustle” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.”
“Without us, there are no movies and no shows, and yet we’re still overlooked and underpaid,” said Mr. Pellot, 43, a single father of two daughters from East New York, Brooklyn, who said he had worked as many as 150 hours a week on productions like “The Wolf of Wall Street.” “All we want is our fair share.”
The suit names Lions Gate Entertainment, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures and NBCUniversal, whose representatives all declined to give a statement, as well as Marvel Studios, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Parking production assistants are the invisible laborers in an industry that spent $8.7 billion in the city in 2014, according to one study. Most New Yorkers grumble when they see the telltale “No Parking” signs on lampposts. But long before the trailers and movie stars arrive on set, parking production assistants carry out their decidedly unglamorous task. They say that in addition to the long hours and low wages, they are forced to work under onerous and degrading conditions. Many of the workers said that because they were denied breaks and access to restrooms, they were often forced to relieve themselves in buckets or bags in their cars.
“It is just completely humiliating,” said Robert Tracey, 58, who has taken to wearing adult diapers after developing an enlarged prostate while on the job. Still, Mr. Tracey noted that some of his co-workers have even worse health consequences, including one man who lost several toes to frostbite after a winter spent sleeping in an inadequately heated car.
The complaint details a system whereby parking production assistants are given a flat rate for a full 12-hour shift, or a six-hour half shift. However, if they work too few hours to meet a minimum, they are paid nothing for their time, the suit alleges. And if they exceed the set hours, the suit charges, time sheets are falsified to give the appearance of complying with wage laws.
James A. Vagnini, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs, described this practice as “backing into” the time sheets.
“Basically they are fudging the hours in order for it to neatly fit into the shift pay, no matter how many hours the guys worked,” he said. “It makes it look like they are abiding by the law and still staying on budget when in fact they are shortchanging the workers.”
While the complaint does not accuse the employers of racial discrimination, both the lawyers handling the case and the plaintiffs noted that the situation overwhelmingly affected minorities.
“When big business wants to save a couple of dollars, they usually turn to their minorities,” said Mr. Vagnini, a partner at Valli Kane & Vagnini.
“At first it seemed like a coincidence; I didn’t want to think about it along racial lines,” said Stevie Leach, 35, a parking production assistant. “But then I just couldn’t deny it anymore.”
Compounding the problem is that parking production assistants have been repeatedly stymied in their efforts to unionize, lawyers said.
“We’re not like the Teamsters or anyone else on set, really,” Alexander Campbell, 58, said. “We don’t have anyone out there protecting our interests.”
Pulling a hood over his head, Mr. Campbell headed into the rain, back toward his car.
– Staff Writer Noah Remnick, New York Times