For many union workers, 2020 is a lost year
By TIM ROWDEN
Is the economy bouncing back from the COVID-19 pandemic? For many, it depends on where you work. For workers in the entertainment and hospitality industry, 2020 is shaping up to be a total loss.
- The Muny, St. Louis’ popular outdoor theater venue in Forest Park, canceled its entire 2020 season, sidelining some 800 different seasonal employees, including Stagehands (IATSE Local 6), Musicians (AFM Local 2-197), Actors (SAG-AFTRA), Wardrobe Attendants (IATSE Local 805), Scenic Artists (USA 829), Stage Directors and Choreographers (SDC), ushers ( IATSE Theatrical Employees Local B-2) and Ticket Sellers (IATSE Local 774).And that’s just one venue.
- The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis (The Rep.) doesn’t plan to open its 2020-21 season until December – assuming conditions improve.
- The Cardinals are planning an abbreviated 60-game season starting on July 24, with no or very limited fans allowed in the stands.
- Add to the mix conventions, hotel stays and restaurants and the impact on the entertainment and hospitality industry becomes clear.
“That’s gainful employment for 10 weeks,” he said. “We’re a referral hall. We go from Opera Theatre to The Rep to the Muny. It’s seasonal. When the Muny is not working, the Fox Theater is. When the Opera Theatre isn’t working the The Rep is. We’re gig workers. We go from season to season.”
When entire seasons get cancelled, Rudd said, “It’s devastating.”
Kwofe Coleman, managing director at The Muny, says about 35 full-time employees at The Muny have stayed on, but for the 800 seasonal employees, it’s a lost season.
“It’s important for people to know how broad the impact is on the community,” Coleman said. “They may not know where their neighbors work or what job they do. But if they work at anything that has a large stadium or gathering that has lost a season, they’re hurting right now. Our seasonal employees are just as much a part of The Muny family as anyone else. It’s not just The Muny losing a season, it’s all of the people in our Labor unions.”
The Muny is looking at a $4 million deficit from losing this season, and asking those who have purchased tickets to convert those tickets to donations to lessen the impact.
Longer term, Coleman says, the best thing people can do to help sidelined employees is to return to the theater, concert and sports venues when they are able to reopen.
“One of the best things that can happen when these venues start up is to support them,” Coleman said. “That’s how these seasonal employees find work. That’s the best thing you can do to support them.”
‘A TERRIBLE YEAR FOR EVERYONE’
“The Muny closing has put all of our Muny Orchestra and extras out of work,” said Vicky Smolik, president of Musicians Local 2-197. The Muny normally employs some 30 orchestra musicians and rehearsal pianists a week during the summer season.
And it’s not just The Muny.
- The St. Louis Symphony has postponed or canceled concerts, but hopes to return on Aug. 7, leaving some 90-92 musicians keeping time waiting for performances to resume.
- The Metropolitan Orchestra of St. Louis, which employs 30-40 musicians for its season, and the Gateway Orchestra summer concert series, which employs 40-60 musicians per week for four summer concerts.
“This has just been a terrible year for everyone,” Smolik said. “We want to work more than anything in the world, but we also want to be safe. It’s really hard to be safe and play because of what they call the aerosols for wind players and singers. We can’t wear masks and sing and blow horns at the same time.”
‘A LOT OF PEOPLE AREN’T GOING TO GET THEIR JOBS BACK’
Kevin McNatt, president of UNITE HERE Local 74, which represents hotel and hospitality workers, says only 400 of the local’s 3,500 members are presently working. As business pauses in theme parks, sports and event venues, airports, hotels and convention centers, working families are struggling with layoffs and uncertainty.
And with no conventions, big sporting events or other draws to bring people to St. Louis and Downtown, many aren’t likely to get their jobs back any time soon.
“It’s pretty much the same everywhere,” he said. “There is no business. Some hotels in some cities aren’t even open. Hotel occupancy needs to be around 70 percent to be making a profit. We’re at five or 10 percent now for most of them. Most of the downtown hotels get their business from conventions, but there are no conventions. People aren’t traveling like they were.”
Even those hotels that are open are cutting services, such as regular room cleaning, to reduce opportunities for transmitting the virus. Rather than a housekeeper visiting your room daily to clean up and freshen your linens, McNatt says some hotels are moving to only clean rooms at checkout.
“That puts a lot of housekeepers out of work,” he said.
St. Louis’ hospitality industry recovered from the travel downturn following the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the economic downturn of the Great Recession, but McNatt worries this time may be different.
Many businesses in St. Louis and St. Louis County began reopening May 18, but some have already shut down again, citing customer and staff infections. Amid signs of an uptick of cases of COVID-19 in Missouri, St. Louis City and County issued public health orders last week requiring all individuals over the age of nine to wear a face mask when inside businesses and other public accommodations. Officials issued similar orders in the Kansas City metro area.
Travel and workplace restrictions have forced many businesses and organizations to explore online options they may not have considered before, McNatt says, and some of those changes could be permanent.
“These businesses are finding out they don’t need a building anymore; people can work from home. With business conventions, they’re finding out they don’t need to have hotels to bring people in. When they have meetings, they can just do them online.”
WORSE TIMES AHEAD
The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 11.1 percent in June as the economy recovered 4.8 million jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last week, but over 1.4 million more Americans filed for unemployment insurance. The total number of workers drawing unemployment benefits remains at nearly 20 million, and the $600 federal supplemental to state unemployment insurance approved in the CARES Act is set to expire on July 25.
“When that $600 goes out, $320 from the state isn’t going to cut it,” McNatt said. “We’re going to have a lot of people applying for more assistance.”
Help for union members impacted by COVID-19 layoffs
The shutdowns necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to impact union members.
You can help by making a donation to the St. Louis Labor Council’s $5 for the Fight Fund to help any union members in need or the UNITE HERE Education and Support Fund for hospitality workers displaced by COVID-19.
$5 FOR THE FIGHT
Donations to the $5 for the Fight Fund can be made by check or online. One hundred percent of each donation goes directly to the Fight Fund. If you can help:
- Mail a check or money order to “$5 for the Fight, c/o St. Louis Labor Council, 3301 Hollenberg Dr., Bridgeton, MO 63044; please include your union affiliation.
- Make an online donation to the Fight Fund at labortribune.com/5-for-the-fight. The link will take you to a secure payment site where you can choose to make a one-time donation or an “automatic monthly deduction.”
- Sign-up for the Schnucks eScrip program. Schnucks donates a percentage of your purchases to the Fight Fund at no cost to you. Shoppers can pick-up a free eScrip card at their local Schnucks.
UNITE HERE EDUCATION AND SUPPORT FUND
Donations to the UNITE HERE Education and Support Fund will be used to help hospitality workers:
- Maintain family health insurance coverage during layoffs or reduced hours.
- Pay for food, rent, and utilities.
- Replace wages lost due to reduced hours and tips.
- Retrain for new jobs during the business downturn.
You can make an online donation to the UNITE HERE fund at secure.actblue.com/donate/unite-here.
IF YOU NEED HELP
If you are a union member in need of emergency financial help, you can call the Labor Assistance Line at the United Way at 314-539-4189.