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Pandemic Exacerbates Precarity of Arts Workers

Arts workers were among the first to become unemployed during the pandemic, and will likely be some of the last people who are able to return to work. With unemployment benefits scheduled to run out well before theatres can safely reopen, arts unions must mobilize their members to demand relief.

Zed Simon

October 13, 2020
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Man holding a cardboard sign
Photo: Michaelah Reynolds.

The Current State of Unemployment 

Broadway shut down on March 12, 2020. On March 13, the Broadway League announced Broadway would be closed for a month, with performances resuming the week of April 13. Workers across Broadway (actors, front of house, stagehands, musicians, etc.) all found out about the shutdown when and how the public found out: via live news reporting.  

Eight days later (March 20, 2020), an agreement was reached between the 14 unions representing Brodwy workers and the Broadway League, which resulted in payment for the remainder of the week of March 9 and two additional weeks. Since then, the reopening date has been pushed back four more times, to dates in June, September, January, and just last week, May 31, 2021 (with the caveat that realistically this means fall of next year). In the meantime, nearly 100,000 Broadway workers (across 14 unions) have been on their own to make unemployment benefits work and ends meet. It has now been 30 weeks and counting. It will have been over 60 weeks by the time Broadway opens its doors again, if the current date holds (and that remains a big “if”). The initial 26 weeks of unemployment benefits have been exhausted, federal pandemic unemployment compensation (FPUC) has ended, and workers across industries are left to survive on the few hundred dollars a week — if that — of standard unemployment benefits while the bills keep coming and there’s no return to work in sight. With the new extension of the shutdown, even the extended benefits (52-59 weeks, depending on New York’s unemployment level) will run out for Broadway workers before theatres reopen.

What’s Going on on Broadway?

As of the announcement on October 9, the Broadway shutdown was extended by five months, with the possibility of reopening being pushed even further to September 2021. It is hard to imagine theatres of any size reopening before a vaccine becomes widely available, which experts are projecting won’t be until March or April 2021 at the earliest. Once that becomes a reality, it will still take some pre-production time to get shows back on their feet and ready for audiences again. Due to the intimate nature of theatre spaces, which are generally small with packed seating and tiny bathrooms (and, in New York, frequently non-existent or very tight lobbies), as well as live performances requiring mask-free faces on stage, it is likely that theatres will be among the last spaces to reopen in a Covid-impacted world. 

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While professional sports have been able to return to empty stadiums, a theatre cannot run without a packed house. The economic model of both Broadway and theatre in general means that shows cannot sustain themselves on even a 50% capacity audience, and smaller venues will find it nearly impossible to admit any meaningful number of people while maintaining social distancing. What is to be done in the meantime to help the tens of thousands of people working on and off Broadway, in New York and across the country?

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Actors Equity Association (AEA) have sponsored petitions to encourage Congress to pass new or extend current benefits legislation, but they haven’t taken any visible concrete actions to organize union members to mass mobilize for change, despite boasting a combined nation-wide membership of about 200,000 people. That’s a lot of people out of work who could be organized into a pressurizing force for change, and it isn’t unique to the performing arts industry. If these massive unions organized their members into action, it is almost guaranteed that non-union workers in the industry (of which there are even more) would get involved as well. As of this writing, IATSE and AEA members have received no communication about the latest shutdown extension from their unions. 

The #ArtsWorkersUnite movement is calling on legislators to #BeAnArtsHero and support the Defend Arts Workers Now (DAWN) Act, which would allocate $43.85B in funding to the arts industry — this is proportional to the bailout the ten largest airlines received. Those corporations immediately received $50B in relief funding from the CARES Act back in March, while no money at all has been allotted for the arts and culture sector, which is 4.5% of the national GDP and the source of over 5 million jobs. Broadway-affiliated artists on and off stage are posting on social media and tagging their representatives to bring awareness to the desperate need for relief in an industry that has been hit particularly hard and is still a long way from any kind of recovery. Instagram posts and tweets, unsurprisingly, have yet to bring any legislative wins or material gains to artists on or off Broadway. The CEOs of United and American Airlines were just handed the cash, while arts workers are still desperate for funds.

The bipartisan Save Our Stages/SOS Act (S. 4258/H.R. 7806) seeks to provide funding to performing arts venues, which have all been shuttered since the pandemic began; however, it was referred to the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee for review on July 22, over two months ago, and there has been no movement since then. Clearly, legislation isn’t going to save the arts or the gig workers of this country, both of which are perpetually undervalued in capitalist society.

These symbolic actions of signing petitions, posting on social media, and introducing bills that languish in committee can be important to raise awareness, but they are not enough to protect arts workers. It is clear that Congress currently doesn’t feel pressured to do anything to help arts workers: there’s been no arts-specific relief for nearly seven months, and the bill that has been proposed to help has languished in a Senate committee for months. Legislators, industry leaders, and union leadership are all failing arts workers right now. 

Asking nicely and then expecting Congress to do its job isn’t going to work. Unions like AEA and IATSE must rally both their members and other workers in the industry who are not members to mobilize to demand an increase in unemployment benefits. To do this, they should join with unions across industries as the current economic crisis continues to devastate workers across the country and across the world. To this end, unions must also take up the demands of the unemployed — as the unemployed are often used, in times of economic crisis, as a tool for bosses to underpay their workers. Solidarity between unionized workers, essential workers, and the unemployed is essential to ensure that the capitalists don’t continue to make us pay for their crisis.

The Gig Economy: Home of the Most Vulnerable Workers

The current crisis is hitting arts workers particularly hard because so many of us are part of the gig economy. Gig economy work is always uncertain; it is incredibly precarious, and it has no guaranteed income attached. Working as an artist has always been unpredictable in America, a country that places very little value on creative pursuits. Cobbling together sustainable income through creating art is a monumental task that tends to involve sprinkling in some sort of low-wage survival job in the service industry: hospitality, retail, or food service. 

For millennials, who were generally headed into or out of college around the 2008 recession, the job market has always been dismal. It is not uncommon in New York for people (particularly people in the arts and entertainment industry) in their mid-to-late twenties and early-to-mid thirties to hold multiple part-time jobs at once to cover expenses, including the crushing combination of high rent and seemingly endless student loan payments. This has rendered a career as an artist to be totally inaccessible for many people. 

Workers in the gig economy often can’t work from home. Their jobs tend to rely on other people needing their services and being able to travel throughout a locality to provide those services. All of that shut down when Americans were ordered to shelter in place and avoid public spaces as much as possible, starting in late March. This plunged the entire economy into crisis, but people with jobs that can’t translate to work-from-home were especially impacted, either losing their jobs or risking their lives to stay at work.

Gig economy companies like Uber tried to put in place safety practices to encourage people to continue to use their services, but lockdown orders made it nearly impossible for this to remain a stable business for months. In contrast, sites like Patreon, Twitch, OnlyFans, Etsy, and Teachable saw record numbers of new accounts proliferate in the first several months of lockdown as people with no other options turned to the new “hustle economy” to monetize any skills they could think of to generate income in a shutdown-induced recession. But we shouldn’t have to “hustle” to get our basic needs met in any circumstances, and certainly not in the middle of a global crisis. 

The capitalist state at every turn has failed to provide for the needs of its citizens at the same time that it has written enormous checks to big capital. To see what capitalism values, one only has to look at their first bailout bill that gave more money to big corporations than hospitals. Congress still hasn’t passed an unemployment extension but are preparing to force a Supreme Court nominee through. Now that it’s October and even big bailout money has run out, major corporations are laying off tens of thousands of employees at a time, while maintaining CEOs’ bloated salaries. Nancy Pelosi at one point suggested a second bailout of the airlines as a standalone bill if a full relief package can’t make it through the Senate, though she has since walked that back. The capitalists and their politicians want us to pay for their crisis and expect us to do so through taking even more precarious jobs than before and “hustling” while they give themselves free money. 

Arts Workers, In and Out of Unions, Are in Trouble

The Be An Arts Hero campaign states, “…the common ‘survival jobs’ for Arts workers are in the hospitality and service sectors, which have been almost equally devastated by this crisis.  With over 20 million unemployed, the competition for ‘survival jobs’ is fierce; millions will remain unemployed for the foreseeable future.” And here the union workers and gig economy collide into an unparalleled level of mutual catastrophe: 14 unions-worth of workers have lost their jobs for the foreseeable future, and their “survival jobs” in the gig economy are nearly non-existent too. FPUC ended over two months ago. Eviction moratoriums are ending. Workers across the country have minimal financial, health, and housing support, and the competition for jobs is fierce as layoffs spike again. While we may have seen the worst of hospitalizations and deaths due to Covid-19, the economic impacts are continuing to worsen, particularly for the most vulnerable workers.

Freelancers and gig workers have even fewer protections than unionized workers. Union laborers presumably have jobs to return to, whenever theatres finally reopen their doors, but how many small theatres, like so many other types of small businesses, will not survive this pandemic? There will surely be fewer opportunities for creators of all kinds even when we are able to enter performance spaces again, not to mention fewer bartending, barista, server, and retail jobs as countless bars, restaurants, and stores are shuttered by the economic impact of the pandemic. 

As of August 2020, the official New York State unemployment rate was 12.5% (1.2 million people), down from its peak of 15.9% (1.5 million people) in July. Governor Cuomo has just extended the moratorium on residential evictions through the end of 2020, but that only applies to New Yorkers and still requires tenants to prove — in court — that their inability to pay rent is due to Covid-19. In New York City, where over half of tenants are rent burdened (rent is at least 30% of income) and over half of those people are severely rent burdened (rent is at least 50% of income), standard unemployment benefits are utterly insufficient to sustain basic needs. The end of FPUC has had a particularly immediate effect on those without savings, including young people and gig economy workers, two groups with substantial overlap. When living paycheck to paycheck, there’s nothing left over for savings in the case of an emergency, especially not a seven-months-and-counting one.

The longer the country goes without a handle on the pandemic, the worse the economic situation gets for the working class. Unions are meant to protect their workers and fight for them, and yet instead of organizing a movement to help hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers, in the arts and beyond, they are silent. Communications from IATSE and AEA to their membership have for months offered the same message: focus on voting for Biden, contacting senators about the HEROES act (passed in the House in May), and getting friends and family to do the same, completely ignoring the current working class realities of evictions, hunger, illness, and hopelessness. Union leadership is not on the side of workers here. Politely asking the capitalist legislature to give some money, maybe, to the completely halted and abandoned arts industry hasn’t worked for six months, and it’s not working now. Voting and hashtags won’t get us out of this crisis. We need leadership and a mass mobilization of the unemployed, across industries, to demand expanded unemployment benefits and healthcare now. The unemployed and front line workers must create a united front to demand change, protections, and financial support. Class solidarity is crucial to the survival of all of us: the unionized and the gig workers, the unemployed and the front line workers. The working class has the power to unite and shift the power and our plight. 

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