Last weekend, Steven Covey still had a job.
As a stagehand, he has spent the past decade bringing Miami performances to life through mainly projection work. Most of his jobs come from the Adrienne Arsht Center, but he also tours with Miami City Ballet and picks up work at smaller theaters through the Local 500 branch of his labor union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). Aside from the ballet, which employs him directly, the union facilitates each of his gigs.
Many Miami venues began canceling or postponing performances last week in response to the growing presence of the novel coronavirus across the United States. At the time, Covey was still warehouse-prepping for the ballet’s upcoming tour of Don Quixote, which was scheduled to open in West Palm Beach this month.
However, it soon became clear that things were changing more rapidly than anyone had anticipated.
On Saturday, March 14, Covey was at the Arsht Center’s concert hall setting up audio equipment, chairs, and music stands for an audience-less performance by a local orchestra, which was planned to be livestreamed. “We were set up, we were just coming back from lunch waiting for rehearsal to start, and then before the orchestra members started to come in, somebody made the call that it was a bad idea to have that many people in a small space,” Covey says. “Even without an audience, we still had like 60 people in a space together.”
With the event called off, he and his team began to disassemble the work they had done. As they wrapped up, several began to get phone calls requesting them for another job the next morning: The blockbuster musical Hamilton had canceled its remaining tour performances, and workers were needed for an emergency loadout of all the show’s equipment.
Covey decided to take the job. “I ended up going in to help out because everything else was canceled, and it looked like that might be the last day of work that was happening for a while.”
It turned out he was right.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit employees in the entertainment sphere particularly hard. When theaters, concert halls, and arenas close, hundreds of people find themselves without a source of income. They are the behind-the-scenes employees who make performances happen, provide food at concerts and sports games, and ensure clean, secure spaces for the events audiences love. They have no way of working from home and often get hired on a job-by-job basis by various employers, meaning many don’t get the benefits of paid sick leave, health insurance, or continued compensation during this crisis.
“I literally get at least ten W2s a year — that’s ten or more employers every year, and none of them would be responsible to help us during sick days or anything close to this,” Covey says.
“Personally, I think our industry is shut down for the unforeseeable future,” says Terry McKenzie, business representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees' Local 500 branch. The union represents a plethora of jobs, including sound and lighting experts, riggers, flymen, and ushers, as well as hair and makeup artists. “Everybody is in shock, and nobody knows what to do.”
The labor union Unite Here, which represents employees in hotels, gaming, food service, and other industries, called for government assistance at a phone press conference this past Wednesday. Representing more than 300,000 employees throughout the States and Canada, including about 32,000 in South Florida, they anticipate that 80 to 90 percent of their members will be out of jobs during this period. In Florida, the majority of members are female immigrants from Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Central America.
“This pandemic hit Miami at the height of our busy season while spring break was in full swing,” Wendi Walsh, secretary/treasurer of Unite Here’s Miami branch, said during the Wednesday press conference, citing closings of hotels, stadiums, and casinos. “Tens of thousands of workers are trying to apply for unemployment here in Florida. The process is extremely difficult and lengthy; the website is crashing. Folks are finding themselves unable to qualify or complete the application.” For those who do get approved, Florida’s maximum unemployment payment is only $275 per week.
Some employers with the means have stepped up and tried to do their part. The Marlins have pledged $1 million to ballpark employees, and the Heat and American Airlines Arena announced disaster relief for part-time employees as well as workers from their partner companies in food concessions, security, and housekeeping.
But for many people, the future remains uncertain.
Covey says the loss of income will be felt particularly hard this time of year. “This is supposed to be our busiest time, where we’re all stockpiling money for the summer. I don’t think anyone was really prepared to get cut off three months early like this,” he says. “January through May is when a lot of conventions and stuff come through, and those are big moneymakers for a lot of people; that’s where we can keep hundreds of members employed. But the first convention canceled and then Hamilton canceled, and now there’s nothing for anyone.”
Raul Milan, who works as a concession bartender at the Arsht Center, Marlins Park, and Hard Rock Stadium, normally relies on the consistency of baseball and football season on top of picking up jobs with the ballet and opera.
“In a matter of two days, between Thursday and Friday, I lost roughly an entire month’s worth of work,” Milan says. Last week, he watched as events such as Jazz in the Gardens, the Miami Open, and the Marlins' opening week were canceled in rapid succession. His last day of work wound up being Hamilton’s final Miami show on Thursday. By the next morning, he’d gotten the email announcing the cancellation of all scheduled Arsht Center performances.
Sunday morning, Covey arrived at 8 a.m. for the Hamilton loadout, which took seven hours.
“It was a weird vibe,” he says of the work atmosphere. “With all our local guys, there was a big feeling of ‘Is this the last time we’re going to work for a few months?’ The anxiety was just starting to settle in.” He chatted with a few of the older men on the job, including one who had been planning to retire this year and is now being forced to reconsider.
Once the workday was over, Covey headed straight home.
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“No one was shaking hands, no one was making contact with each other, so I tried not to stick around too much,” he says. “It was kind of a quick goodbye and good luck to everybody, and see you on the other side of this.”
At home, Covey is riding out the storm with his wife — who works as a teacher — and their two daughters, aged 9 and 11. Through the IATSE union, Covey has health insurance and an annuity fund, some of which he can access to pay for hardships. For now, he has enough money saved to continue paying for the insurance. But his wife’s breast cancer diagnosis, which came earlier this year, adds another layer of concern.
Amid the uncertainty about how long this new reality might last, he’s taking things one day at a time.
“I hate to see myself out of work, but even more so I hate to see thousands and thousands of others going through the same thing,” he says. “They canceled all mass gatherings, and we are an industry of mass gatherings, so they essentially canceled our entire industry nationwide.”