The Business of Show Biz: Social Security Faux Pas
Thursday, May 31, 2012
By Velina Brown
Q: I recently had a theatre audition at which I was asked for my social security number. I've never been asked for that information before being hired. I wasn't comfortable giving it to them, but I did. Now I'm still wondering. Why would they want my social security number before they've even hired me?
|Actor and career consultant, Velina Brown.
A: When I first read your question, I really had no idea why anyone would ask for an actor's social security number at an audition. So I asked several theatre companies whether they request social security numbers at auditions and if so, why? They didn't know either.
Amy Potozkin of Berkeley Rep said, "We do not request this info for auditions." Bruce Elsperger at San Jose Rep said, "We do not request that info unless the actor has been hired." Leslie Martinson of TheatreWorks also said, "We don't ask for that at auditions. I have no idea why a company would." Meg Pearson of Marin Theatre Company was more emphatic: "That sounds crazy to me. I have no idea why anyone would need that information ahead of time. I don't ask for any information—just that they sign a paper stating that they understand the time commitment required for each show."
However, a company we'll call Personal Question Theatre said that Actors' Equity Association required that they ask for the social security numbers. They went on to say, "One way to think about it is that an employer has the right to ask for a SSN before hiring. We ask for the SSN on tax forms and I-9s as well." Yes, but asking a new employee to fill out tax forms and I-9s is completely different from asking for the SSN at an audition. Why do they need the number, and why would Equity require it?
Naturally, I asked Equity business rep Bethany Umbach about this, to which she responded, "We absolutely do not require social security numbers prior to hiring. We can always look members up by their Equity number if a question should arise."
Hmm. What is missing here? Back to Personal Question Theatre to follow up. They further explain, "We cast both AEA and non-AEA actors. Non-AEA actors need to be eligible to work as non-AEA actors; that's why AEA requires they fill out a nonpro form. In the past, we have had situations on occasion when we've cast an actor, and we don't find out until we send in the nonpro form (after rehearsals have begun) that the actor is not eligible to work non-AEA; for example, they are an EMC with more than 50 weeks or they are an EMC and SAG member with more than 25 weeks. We need to ensure when casting that actors will actually be eligible to perform as non-AEA members."
I share Personal Question Theatre's response with Umbach, to which she replies, "At a theatre's request, we do run the names of nonpros for them to avoid issues later on, as [the theatre] has pointed out. We don't necessarily need social security numbers for this, but it can be helpful to make sure the name in the system is actually the person they are casting (as nonmembers, they do not have an Equity number). If it is a local address it is fairly easy to tell, but the most accurate way is through social security numbers. None of this is required—it is just done as a precaution (as [Personal Question Theatre] has pointed out)."
The point that is not lining up is that Personal Question Theatre says that Equity requires them to ask for actors' SSN, and Umbach at Equity says getting the SSN is not an Equity requirement. But to finally answer your question, one reason why a theatre might ask you for your SSN is if it has had more than one incident in which an actor was attempting to work nonunion when they are in fact union or a "must join" and this suddenly is revealed once rehearsal has begun. It would be quite a mess. Either the theatre has to recast or it has to sign the actor to a contract when it was not budgeted to hire a union person for the role. To avoid this, it wants to verify union status before hiring. I don't know if this is the reason the theatre you auditioned for asked for your SSN. But is a reason why a theatre might do that. Who knew?
Anyway, you are not required to give your SSN at auditions. Let's all promise to be clear about our union status so theatres won't feel the need to ask for our private info before hiring.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.