Union Call: Safety is Top Priority for Next Steps

May 27, 2020

This story is courtesy of Stage Directions magazine (www.stage-directions.com)

In early May the AFL-CIO convened a press call so we would have the opportunity to hear from the various entertainment industry unions’ leadership. Stage Directionswas particularly interested to hear from both Matthew D. Loeb, International President of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and Kate Shindle, President of Actors’ Equity Association (AEA).

The AFL-CIO noted in their invitation:
With theaters closed, productions postponed, and performances cancelled, most of the country’s four million arts, entertainment, and media professionals are out of work due to COVID-19. The entertainment industry is unique in that work is largely project-based. The nature of creative professionals’ work means that traditional state unemployment insurance benefits tend to be insufficient and provide little relief for lost work. Arts, entertainment, and media unions have united during this difficult time to make sure their members without work have the economic support they need, and those still working can do so safely. Working as a coalition with efforts coordinated by the Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE), unions of creative professionals secured expanded access to unemployment benefits for workers across the industry with the passage of the CARES Act. Arts, entertainment, and media professionals will likely be some of the last workers able to return safely to their jobs due to expected longer-term social distancing requirements. With this in mind, their unions are continuing to collaborate through DPE to secure additional relief in the next phase of COVID-19 legislation.

Loeb opened his time on behalf of IATSE by first stating, “The major priorities have been to provide, through government relief, protection for our people and making sure that we’re included in any kind of relief, including our local unions of which we have 360 locals that need to be included in the PPP for small businesses because that’s what they are. We need to extend unemployment insurance as well as COBRA coverage to make sure people’s benefits remain in place for health coverage. Pension plan relief also is a priority that has to be dealt with.”

“In addition to that, we are now engaged in discussions about safety and return to work, which will be a difficult and complicated process. We’ve approved amounts of money into various charities on behalf of our members so that they can get some help in the interim. The economic impact should not be underestimated. When you talk about Broadway and the engine in New York City driven by tourism, you have to consider the long-term economic impact and the residual economic impact this has on other businesses that are supported by that economy. We are among the first to be harmed by the pandemic because people cannot go to a theater and sit next to each other, and I believe we will be among the last to return, especially in the live theater but even in motion picture and television production and in trade shows. People are close together, and there are going to have to be safety rules in place. Safety now has become a primary concern.”

In their continuing efforts at IATSE to safely look towards reopening and the return to work for its membership, they announced on May 18, 2020 that they have hired a team of three epidemiologists to consult the union on best practices for workers in the entertainment industry to safely return to work. The move comes as workers in all sectors of the industry face unprecedented levels of unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and employers look to find a way to resume business.

Loeb said of the hiring, “We want everyone to get back to work as soon as possible, but we need to do it right. We are working with these epidemiologists and employers to create standards that will apply across the board in the U.S. and Canada, so no production or worker is left behind.”

The team of epidemiologists include:

    David H. Wegman, M.D., M.P.H., Emeritus Professor of Work Environment at UMass Lowell and Adjunct Professor for the Harvard School of Public Health
    Letitia Davis, ScD, EdM, director of the Occupational Health Surveillance Program (OHSP) in the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
    Gregory R. Wagner, M.D., Adjunct Professor of Environmental Health Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

The nature of the entertainment industry presents unique challenges in a global pandemic. Much of the live event industry is dependent on drawing crowds of people for revenue. And behind the scenes, many workers, like those in Hair and Make-up and Wardrobe departments, must work in extremely close proximity to others to do their jobs. “Creative jobs will require creative measures to come back safely,” said Loeb. “These professionals will help us uncover what those measures should be.”

Shindle began her part of the call acknowledging that, “Our members are hurting. We went from record employment last season to 100% unemployment. Actors’ Equity Association represents about 52,000 stage managers and actors working in the live theater, and now those people are worried about the basics. How are they going to pay their rent, for example? They are especially worried about their healthcare. At Equity, we strongly believe that no one should lose their healthcare in the middle of a pandemic, so we continue to advocate on all fronts on healthcare both at the state and federal level and by working with our employers, but Congress must do more, which is why Equity, among others, has called for a 100% COBRA subsidy.”

“Looking forward, there are two critical pieces: safety standards and arts funding,” continued Shindle. “We know we can be a leader in developing new standards for the entire industry. We have retained former OSHA administrator Dr. David Michaels to help advise us on new safety standards. Historically, there is no such thing as social distancing for our members, particularly the actors, regardless of the size of the audience, so we know we’re going to need some new standards going forward. I mean it’s one of the only workplaces in which it’s not only legal but expected that you will kiss your coworker as a condition of your job. I think we’re going to see theaters and employers being creative, our directing and choreography colleagues being creative with how they use our members and new and innovative ways, but we have to know that it’s safe onstage and backstage in addition to in the audience before we are comfortable that it’s safe to go back to work.”

“The other piece is arts funding, which is about creating jobs that power our cities and towns. I think it’s really important that we continually frame arts funding not as a luxury but as the economic engine that it is. Congress also must do more on arts funding to ensure that theaters have the support they need to reopen when it is safe to do so because that has a halo effect which allows local economies to recover. As many of you may know, the average not-for-profit arts attendee spends an additional $31 per person per show on the ancillary services that surround the theaters, such as restaurants and bars and parking garages. Nationally, this spending supports 2.3 million jobs, provides 46.6 billion in household income, and generates 15.7 billion in total government revenue. The arts and entertainment industry is responsible for more than 4 million jobs, and we power a sector responsible for $877 billion in value and 4.5% of U.S. gross domestic product. We have to continue to think of the arts not only in a cultural context but in an economic context. The arts create jobs not just in theater but in important other ways such as, as I mentioned, restaurants, parking garages, and travel.”

Shindle concluded saying, “Going forward, I would say that I am optimistic. We are going through an extremely difficult time right now, and I think it’s going to get harder before it gets easier, but it’s my observation and the observation of Actors’ Equity that theatermakers make theater. While we are eager for them to innovate, we also have the absolutely highest priority placed on the safety, onstage and backstage, for the arts professionals who work in our industry.”

As Shindle mentioned in her statement, on April 24, 2020, Actors’ Equity Association hired public health expert Dr. David Michaels to consult for the union helping to develop new model health and safety standards for COVID-19. Michaels is currently a Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health of George Washington University. Notably, he served as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“David’s expertise will be invaluable during this unprecedented time,” said Mary McColl, Executive Director Actors’ Equity Association. “Ultimately, while the employers are solely responsible for ensuring the health and safety of all actors and stage managers, Equity is committed to being an industry leader to help develop model health and safety standards that will eventually allow us to reopen and maintain a safe and healthy workplace.”

On April 21, Equity Council unanimously passed a new internal membership rule that members may only return to work when the union deems it safe to do so, and that they will not sign over their rights to a safe workplace. Dr. Michaels will no doubt be a key part to implementing a plan where member safety is put first, and decisions are made with a clear safety and scientific basis.

Shindle was asked for any update regarding Dr. Michaels work with AEA on timing of when it would be safe to return to work. “Dr. Michaels right now, as I understand it, is spending a fair amount of time really familiarizing himself with the industry, so it would be premature to talk about dates,” answered Shindle. “He is doing a lot of listening and having a lot of conversation with our staff. We have some folks in-house who focus on safety but no one with the epidemiological background of a specialist like he is, but we are moving as quickly as possible to determine when it’s going to be safe. It would probably be premature to attach a date to it, but I think I speak for everyone when I say that our members would love to get back to work as quickly as possible.”

Be sure to go to both IATSE and AEA’s websites for the latest updates to reopening plans, safety measures, and COVID-19 updates. Go to IATSE and/or, AEA.