The Loophole that Stole Christmas for Movie Theater Workers

Little-known fact: movie theater workers who work on Christmas aren’t covered by overtime laws. Now, workers at the nation’s largest theater chain are demanding holiday pay. They’re the real reason theaters are open on Christmas Day, and they deserve the movie-going public’s support.

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December is huge for the entertainment industry. It’s the biggest month of the year for tentpole flicks like this year’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the new adaptation of Cats. It’s also last call for Academy Awards hopefuls, like Greta Gerwig’s rising-star-studded remake of Little Women and Uncut Gems, a crime drama unexpectedly starring Adam Sandler.

There’s a decent chance you and yours will head to see one of these on Christmas Day. In fact, the theaters and studios are banking on it. They know that few other businesses are open on Christmas, and that people who have the day off are looking for entertaining group activities to pass the time. Every year, in an attempt to take advantage of the trend, several movies are released on Christmas Day itself.

But here’s the rub: many hourly theater employees don’t get the option of taking Christmas off, and they don’t get extra pay either. Christmas is, literally, no holiday for many theater workers.

AMC Theatres is the nation’s largest movie theater chain, employing almost forty thousand full- and part-time workers. This holiday season, the chain has been slapped with a petition boasting over seven thousand signatures calling on the company to change its two-tier holiday pay structure.

Current policy stipulates that managers and supervisors receive time-and-a-half pay for working on Christmas Day, while hourly workers are just expected to show up and work for their normal rate. Hourly workers say this isn’t fair. “We do the same, if not more, than management,” reads the petition.

“AMC Theatres, the company with the largest share of the American movie theater market, gives its salaried managers overtime and holiday pay,” it says, “while the crew, who essentially does most of the manual labor, get paid an hourly-based rate regardless of whether they work overtime or on the holidays.” The petition calls for the same holiday pay rules that apply to salaried workers to extend to hourly workers as well.

But AMC workers’ grievances and demands aren’t restricted to the holidays. There’s another problem: thanks to an outdated loophole exempting cinema workers from federal overtime pay laws, workers at movie theaters can put in more than 40 hours a week without seeing a single extra penny.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 contains an exemption for “any employee employed by an establishment which is a motion picture theater.” When it was passed, explained Cornell labor studies professor Kate Bronfenbrenner to CBS, there weren’t that many jobs in movie theaters. The ones that existed were often staffed by professionals, like old-school projectionists, who were not easily replaceable and therefore had more leverage in bargaining for a decent contract on their own behalf.

Movie theaters today are a totally different animal, especially the new generation of cineplexes, which draw huge crowds and require legions of box office workers, ticket takers, snack sellers, cleaners, and more. Many big movie theaters even have full-service restaurants in them, which essentially means you have a group of restaurant cooks and waitstaff who — if they are employed by the theater itself — aren’t covered by the labor laws that apply to the restaurant industry.

The AMC workers’ petition calls for the removal of the “motion picture theater” exemption from the FLSA. In the meantime, workers at AMC want the company, which rakes in several billions of dollars in profit per year, to pay hourly workers overtime. In full view of the benefits afforded to managers that are currently withheld from salaries employees, AMC workers are asking for paid sick leave too.

AMC hourly workers deserve the support of the movie-going public. They’re the ones who keep the theaters running on Christmas Day so we can revel in the flashy new blockbuster or take in Oscar-worthy dramatic performances. Where are the theater and studio execs on Christmas Day? Relaxing in their mansions or on luxurious vacations no doubt, and being handsomely compensated for every hour of work they don’t do.

Theatre executives don’t smother our popcorn with butter, or separate ticket from stub. We owe our holiday entertainment not to the people who set the outrageous candy prices and reap the profits, but to those who arrange boxes of Junior Mints in display cases and sweep Goobers off the floor.

Hourly workers are the reason the movie theaters are open on Christmas Day, and they deserve a better deal. Hey AMC, don’t be a Scrooge.