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Reimbursing Runners

Content warning: discussion of mental health issues, including Anxiety.

When fairly new to TV, it is normal to be nervous on day one of a shoot. I used to worry about getting there on time, wonder if someone might use jargon that I didn’t understand, or if I’d just stand there looking like a buffoon.

These troubles are present throughout careers, not just at the beginning, but being new to the industry and often uncertain about what exactly to expect from each job – particularly because runners are not specialised and thus expected to work across all areas of a workforce – can make these unpredictable variables even more daunting.

What a runner should not have to stress about on top of these things is spending their own money in the workplace.

This article has not been written to point fingers or name names, but I, and many people I know, have often been asked to spend our own money on a job and been reassured that we will be reimbursed as soon as we return to the office.

This is wrong on many levels.

But what adds insult to injury is that you will only be reimbursed once you have sent proof of the expenditure. This is usually in the form of a receipt, but sometimes in an invoice. If you do get a receipt, remember to get a VAT receipt, not just a credit card printout – there is a big difference! Strictly speaking, if you don’t have a receipt, the production company is not required to reimburse you. So, make sure you get a receipt! This money will sometimes only make its way into your account on pay day.

So, when you are told you will ‘be reimbursed’, this does not necessarily mean you will get your money back straight away.

In my case, I finished university in May 2019. I didn’t have a steady income because I wanted to focus my energy on jobs in TV. Eventually I did get a second job as a waitress. But, at the beginning I wanted to be readily available to work as a runner, even though financially I really could have done with having a part-time job on top of this. So, for most of my first year as a Runner, I remained at the disposal of ad-hoc dailies to just about pay my bills.

Therefore, although this shouldn’t have to be justified, I didn’t have enough money to be lending my employer when I barely had enough to spend on my weekly groceries.

I thought I would provide an example here to show just how damaging requesting a Runner to spend their own money can be.

On one occasion, I was to go on a run in the company car to pick up an item that had already been paid for. After driving a few miles, I noticed I didn’t have enough petrol to get to my destination, which was about an hour’s drive away. I popped via a petrol station to fill up the car. I then went to the ATM to take some money out using the company card, as we were required to use cash on this particular production. Cash is not really used at the moment, due to the pandemic, but this was the case back then. The card got declined.

I hurriedly rang the Production Manager (PM) to inform them and I was told to use my own money, which would be reimbursed. The average car costs about £40 to fill the tank. This was quite a large vehicle so let’s say it cost around £50.

My card was declined too. I had no money in my account. There was no way I could pay for the petrol.

If I was put in this situation today, I would simply inform my PM that I didn’t have the money to pay for the petrol and someone would have to send some over. But I was new. I had never worked on such a large-scale production before. More than anything, I was embarrassed. I couldn’t face, what I expected to be, the mortification of walking back into the office after having told my colleagues that I had no money in my bank account.

So, I called my friends. I rang around three people that I thought might have a few pounds to spare. They were understanding and generous and sent me what they could. I told them I would pay them back as soon as my pay cheque came in at the end of the month.

Of course, I shouldn’t have felt that I had to do that. I should have felt comfortable enough to tell my PM the truth. But that can’t be expected from someone that is new to the industry. Runners don’t necessarily know what is seen as ‘industry standard’ and what is and is not expected of them. Runners look up to their seniors for advice and one would expect those in positions of power to not take advantage of those at the bottom. I assumed reimbursement was standard procedure for Runners; the fact I couldn’t afford the amount expected of me was my own problem; I was at fault for having no money. I blamed myself. I was ashamed. And, ultimately, my self-esteem was left shaken and I was then in debt to my friends.

I have since met other people in the industry that were also asked to use their own money as a Runner. One person told me that they had to even take out a new overdraft with their bank so that they could pay for all the expenses that the production was asking of them. Again, they were going to be reimbursed. But the issue is that this is not always instantaneous. Reimbursements can take up to a month to come through, especially if you make the payment at the beginning of the month and payday isn’t until the end.

Lots of people reading this article might think I am blowing the whole situation out of proportion. But this has been my experience and others I have spoken to as well. Our experiences were valid.

To make matters worse, I was too afraid to admit to my colleagues that I had my own mental health issues. Part of my anxiety disorder is an overwhelming need to please people and a huge pressure on myself to succeed. In this instance, having my bank balance put my value as an employee into question fuelled a spiral of self-scrutiny and, ultimately, immense humiliation. I discuss the issues surrounding opening up about your mental health in the TV industry in this article. At the end of the day, it is not just those of us that have mental health issues that this can negatively affect. It pulls into question your monetary ‘worth’ in front of colleagues that are above you. This can make a Runner feel incredibly small. At the beginning of my career, I already felt like a small fish in a big pond. These sorts of unnecessary pressures made the big TV pond feel more like a poisonous ocean.

I want to also make it clear that not all members of production are like the ones I have described. I know a number of amazing PMs that will always put their crew before themselves. One PM who once transferred float to her makeup artist because she knew she had recently been out of work but needed new makeup supplies. This wasn’t requested of her, she just did it. I worked for a PM who went out of their way to pay me my wages early because I couldn’t otherwise afford to pay my rent. This would have taken a great deal of time to negotiate with the Accounts department, but she did it because she didn’t want me to be out of pocket. These are selfless acts that do happen, and I don’t want them to be overshadowed by the fear-inducing issues that I have references throughout this piece. There are huge number of incredibly hardworking and good-hearted Production teams out there, and I take my hat off to them.

I have, of course, moved on since these experiences. I have learnt from them and I have grown and not made the same mistakes again. Looking back, I should have asked my PM or PC (Production Coordinator) if the company card had been topped up. I should have also checked the petrol level before driving off. This way, I could have ensured I had the money to get the job done before leaving base. However, as a newcomer, I wasn’t aware of these precautions that I should have made. Last week I wrote a blog about How to go on a successful run as a Runner. I suggest that you ‘Ask how much money is on the card before heading out on your run’. This is just one example of how we learn from our mistakes. I hope this blog serves as a place to log the myriad errors I have made and is open and honest about them, so that other Runners don’t make the same blunders in the future. Instead, learn from mine!

Essentially, I have written this article for two reasons. Firstly, to politely ask those in positions of power to refrain from asking Runners to pay for Production expenditures with their own money. And, secondly, to raise awareness for new entrants about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. I don’t mean for that to sound at all patronising, because I didn’t realise how multi-faceted and toxic reimbursement could be either. The only way we can change issues within the TV industry is by talking about them. Some of the concerns I have raised might not resonate with my readership. The matter of reimbursement is nuanced, and I am aware that it could upset some people. But if this blog at least begins a conversation, then I will feel it has accomplished its goal.

If anyone reading this has been affected by the issues raised, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with myself, any of the mental health charities listed here, or BECTU (our union).

Keep Running! x

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