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Caruana: A round of applause for background workers

Film crew in New York City.

Film crew in New York City. Credit: iStock

This is not the first time I've waited at the lonely bus stop in Nassau County at 4 a.m. to catch a ride to the F train in Jamaica for the trip to Manhattan. It's the beginning of another day in the life of an occasional background worker -- an extra -- reporting to the set of a TV show or movie.

In real life, I am a science and medical writer who experiences income peaks and valleys. Often, the valleys are in the summer and early fall, so even a temporary job -- like the five to seven background-worker gigs I land a year -- are appealing so early in the morning.

Not that these jobs -- some are union scale, others are not -- are easy to get. Thousands of students, retirees, unemployed people and others apply for the nonunion jobs on casting websites and wait for a phone call to be booked on a show. However, most times the call never comes.

If it does, you're often told to call back late at night for the call time and location. Meantime, you scurry around your place for the required clothing and props -- anything from three fancy suits to a ballgown.

This is a huge industry in NYC: In addition to nonunion background workers, some 34,000 Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists members in the metro area are available to work daily on more than 200 films shot each year in NYC and about 500 episodic, reality and talk shows. The industry and related business generate $7.1 billion in economic activity.

Background workers who are union members earn about $148 for eight hours' work, while nonunion extras get minimum wage.

Assignments vary, like when I sat atop of a double-decker bus with a "criminal brandishing a gun" or when I paraded around in uncomfortable clothing to resemble a German housewife in the 1960s while filming on the Upper West Side.

I have no dreams of stardom but nonunion extras like me contribute mightily to what the city nets from its movie/TV industry. Although nonunion extras get overtime for more than 10 hours' work, we deserve additional pay for the early and late hours (for instance, a popular cable show filmed in NYC has 3:30 a.m. call times) and bringing in our own props.

A big round of applause for extras would be nice, but I'd prefer to take a bow to better pay.

Claudia M. Caruana, a background worker, is a New York-based health and science writer.