Out of work for months, Philly event staff rally for more federal aid

“The live event industry was hit first, it was hit hardest, and will be the last to return,” said the head of the stagehands’ union.

Members of the Live Events Coalition push roadie cases around City Hall to draw attention to their plight. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Members of the Live Events Coalition push roadie cases around City Hall to draw attention to their plight. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

More than 50 stagehands and live event workers pushed the tools of their trade – wheeled roadie boxes – around Philadelphia City Hall Friday as part of their demand for more government support while their industry is shut down due to the pandemic.

The Live Events Coalition, a national network of workers who staff everything from sports stadiums and orchestra performances to corporate banquets and weddings, have already held rallies in cities like Boston and Salt Lake City, and is planning an upcoming rally in New York City. These local chapters have organized around what they say is the devastation of their industry.

According to the LEC, live events contributed $10 billion to Philadelphia’s economy in 2019. Statewide, the sector employed over half a million people. Nationally, one-third of all furloughs during the coronavirus pandemic have been in the live events trade.

“The live event industry was hit first, it was hit hardest, and will be the last to return,” said Michael Barnes, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the stagehands union (IATSE) which has joined the LEC.

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Michael Barnes, of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, speaks at a rally of the Live Events Coalition at City Hall. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Barnes recalled getting a preview of COVID-19 damage on March 11 as he watched the Philadelphia 76ers announce the suspension of their NBA season. Within 48 hours, the live events industry collapsed.

Among the first to get hit by the economic downturn was Caitlyn Fullam, an entertainment coordinator who had been with Hard Rock Café in Atlantic City since it opened in 2018. She was laid off on March 17.

“Everyone expects us to get a new job, but this is what we love to do. This is our career. This is what we worked so hard to do,” she said. “We have to fight for what we love. We have to fight for our industry.”

Workers in the live event business, hard hit by the coronavirus shutdown, rally at Philadelphia City Hall to ask for financial support. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Also marching around City Hall was the longtime usher manager at the Kimmel Center, Tom Kerrigan, who was furloughed at the end of June. He managed 190 ushers across the three theaters of the Kimmel Center campus. None of them is working anymore.

“I’ve been there since 1981,” he said. “When you’re used to working every day, almost, and then just nothing, it drives you crazy a little bit.”

 The Philadelphia chapter of Live Events Coalition formed three weeks ago in order to mobilize workers and put pressure on elected officials to extend financial programs that sustain workers and businesses affected by the pandemic. 

“We’re about advocating for our industry. We’re not a networking group,” said Ronnie Anderson, an independent event planner and one of the founders of Philadelphia’s LEC chapter. “We need help to get through COVID, for our people, for the extension of the PUA, updated PPP and EIDL loans. Our industry will be crushed until the second quarter of 2021, it looks like, and that’s the most hopeful.”

Anderson is referring to the federal CARES act programs Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). The LEC wants access to those programs to be extended, enabling businesses to re-apply for loans and protections as the pandemic shutdown grinds on.

Ross Akselrad, co-founder of the Live Events Coalition, packs up after a rally at City Hall asking for more support for live events employees who have been out of work since the start of the coronavirus shut down. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The IATSE stagehand union’s pandemic recovery points are in alignment with the coalition’s. According to Barnes, the union rolled out a five-point plant at the start of the coronavirus outbreak to protect its members, including enhancements to work safety, health care, unemployment, and retirement.

Barnes sees the pandemic shutdown as an opportunity to get off the “hamster wheel” of work and build relationships that will outlast the pandemic.

“We’re all part of the industry but we’re separated because of the eclectic nature of what we do,” he said. “We found a common ground, and if we take advantage of that during the COVID crisis, we can maintain it after the COVID crisis to really help the entertainment and hospitality industry.”

Barnes said Mayor Jim Kenney, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy have been receptive to the demands presented by the union and coalition. Barnes hopes federal financial support programs will be extended soon. If they are not, he threatens retribution at the election in November.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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