Are reality TV show cast members employees? That’s the central question behind a lawsuit filed by a Love is Blind season 2 contestant.
While the lawsuit reveals some fascinating things about the Netflix dating/marriage show, it’s not complaining about, say, the editing.
Instead, it’s ultimately an argument that reality TV show cast members should be treated as employees, instead of as independent contractors, and has the potential to shake up an industry that has long relied on low costs to make big profits.
Jeremy Hartwell sued Netflix, Kinetic Content, and the casting company Delirium TV over the working conditions the cast was subjected to. He wants the lawsuit to be certified as a class action, on behalf of not just Love is Blind participants, but other cast members of Kinetic Content shows produced for Netflix.
While the lawsuit was filed June 28, news about it broke last week, but none of the stories I read included the full lawsuit.
So I paid $22.20 to download it from the L.A. County Superior Courts website, and now you can read it, in full, below. Let’s take a look at its claims.
What the lawsuit reveals about Love is Blind
The lawsuit’s includes some interesting information and claims about the production:
- Love is Blind cast members’ stipend was $1,000 a week—for workdays that lasted 20+ hours
- The maximum stipend was $8,000
- The cast was not allowed to talk about how much they were being paid.
- Production for season two began April 24, 2021
- The cast has still not been paid—for a show that filmed in 2021 and aired earlier this year
- The cast stays in a hotel, and was transported between the hotel and the set, but were not allowed to have their own hotel keys.
- The lawsuit says producers “required access to and control of” social media—even after filming—and the cast was also required to promote the show on their social channels.
The headline-grabbing claims were what it calls “inhumane working conditions”:
- The cast was “refused timely food and water”
- “food was restricted to the point of severe hunger,” including that producers “instructed the hotel staff to not provide food”
- The cast got alcoholic beverages and mixers, but not water, which was “strictly limited”
- The cast was “Forced to perform in various states of fatigue, hunger, and drunkenness”
While not having “timely food and water” would make sense for a survival show like Survivor or Naked and Afraid that involves deprivation as part of its format, Love is Blind has no reason for not providing food.
The contestants are staying in a hotel. Why not let them order room service? Why not give them cases of water and snacks? I can understand not wanting them to mingle with each other off-camera, but there’s no reason to prohibit them from eating.
In a statement to Realscreen, Kinetic Content said:
Mr. Hartwell’s involvement in season 2 of Love Is Blind lasted less than one week. Unfortunately for Mr. Hartwell, his journey ended early after he failed to develop a significant connection with any other participant. While we will not speculate as to his motives for filing the lawsuit, there is absolutely no merit to Mr. Hartwell’s allegations, and we will vigorously defend against his claims.
I’m not sure that accusing someone of not finding a life partner in a few days of talking to a wall on a contrived reality show is a great defense when accused of not giving people water or food for no reason, but what do I know.
It’s notable that Hartwell first filed a complaint with the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency of “the alleged Labor Code violations committed by Defendants, including the facts and theories supporting these claims,” and that complaint is part of the lawsuit below. Only after it did not respond did his attorneys sue.
As to why he did that, Jeremy Hartwell wrote on Instagram:
This is truly about nothing but justice, for everyone who suffered while on these shows. It is exactly because of my limited airtime that I am in a unique position to take this risk and show others, many of whom went through far worse than me, that they can tell their story.
What this might mean for reality TV
On page two is the lawsuit’s central claim: “Defendants willfully misclassified employees as independent contractors” who “were in reality employees that were entitled to protections under California law.”
It goes on to provide a detailed accounting of the production’s failure to meet labor law. Specifically, things such as “failure to pay overtime wages, failure to pay minimum wages, failure to provide wage statements, failure to provide meal breaks, failure to provide rest breaks, failure to pay wages promptly after termination”.
A few examples of the claimed violations related to employment:
- no “off-duty meal periods as required by California law”
- no record of “total hours worked, total wages owed, and applicable rates of pay, as required by Labor Code § 226”
- “worked in excess of four hours or a major fraction thereof during workdays without being provided at least a ten-minute rest period”
- “worked shifts with an excess of 10 hours between meals Defendants also failed and continue to fail to provide a third or fourth rest periods where required by law, including on occasions where Class Members worked in excess of 10 hours”
Some of the lawsuit’s examples are practices that will sound very familiar to anyone familiar with reality TV production.
For example, Love is Blind cast members had to agree to medical, psychiatric, and background checks to be considered for employment.
That’s extremely standard; during finals casting of Big Brother, for example, potential contestants meet with more than one psychologist, and undergo medical checks.
But those practices are barred in California for companies hiring employees. For example, the production asked about past felony convictions during casting, but California law prohibits employers from asking about criminal convictions before actually offering employment.
And then there’s the matter of pay. A stipend of $1,000 a week—equivalent to a salary of $52,000 a year—seems reasonable, but that’s not for 40 hours worth of work. The lawsuit says they worked “up to twenty (20) hour days”—which would be “effectively as little as $7.14 per hour,” which is half of the $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles.
And they didn’t even get paid that, the lawsuit claims. If it’s true that the cast still—as of the lawsuit’s filing at the end of June—has not been been paid for work they did in 2021, for a show that already aired in 2022, that’s shocking.
There is no excuse for Love is Blind not paying cast members their small stipends more than one year after production concluded. You cannot pay for rent or health insurance with “exposure” or Instagram followers.
Again, though, this is common for the industry: Survivor winners don’t get their $1 million—nor does the cast get their small stipends—until the finale of their season airs.
Yet seeing all of these claims together makes me wonder if we’re just used to all of this as standard practice, or if it’s actually indefensible.
Netflix is a company worth $84 billion, and Forbes named it the fourth-largest media company in the world. And Love is Blind is one of Netflix’s biggest unscripted hits, which is why Netflix renewed it for two more seasons, plus international versions. After it premiered, the show was in “the Top 10 in 54 countries,” Netflix said.
Companies like Netflix (and Disney, and Warner Bros. Discovery, and Paramount Global, and Comcast/NBCUniversal, and Fox) make millions and millions of dollars off of shows that would not exist without their cast.
Part of what makes reality TV cheap and super-profitable is that networks and streaming services don’t pay much for shows, and those tiny budgets mean cast is not paid like scripted talent. Of course actors are trained craftspeople, and I’m not arguing that they be compensated the same way.
But is paying cast members minimum wage too much to ask? Is being able to order room service or GrubHub too much to ask for a non-survival show? Is giving someone bottles of water when they want it too much to ask?
I think it’s time for a change in the way reality TV producers and buyers do business.