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With Live Music Devastated, Austin Stagehands Desperate for Aid

September 11, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

AUSTIN, Tex.—In the city that bills itself as “The Live Music Capital of the World,” the COVID-19 epidemic has been so devastating that the live-music listings in the Austin Chronicle weekly, normally six or seven pages long, filled barely a quarter-page in the Sept. 3 issue.

Protesting stagehands roll road carts up Congress Street.

“We shut down like a lightbulb,” says Jennifer Crump, a freelance lighting designer and master theater electrician. “My colleagues and friends in the industry are all out of work.” Her last gig ended March 13, when the Austin Rodeo was suddenly cancelled.

So, Crump, working with International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees Locals 205 and 484 and a coalition of Austin production companies, organized a rally Sept. 8 for 100-odd laid-off stagehands and other behind-the-scenes workers. Clad in black with masks and bandannas covering their faces, they rolled empty road cases four blocks up the stone-brick sidewalks of Congress Avenue, from under the marquee of the Paramount Theatre to the southern gates of the Texas state capitol.

“We make events,” they chanted. “Push for $600.”

They were demanding that the federal government pass the HEROES Act, which would extend enhanced unemployment benefits, including the $600-a-week supplement and benefits for laid-off gig workers such as Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Other demands included rental assistance, mortgage relief, and a moratorium on evictions; access to extended health coverage; and government support for arts funding and entertainment workers. Texas AFL-CIO head Rick Levy told the crowd that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has had the HEROES Act on his desk since May and done nothing to bring it to the floor.

Stagehands are struggling to survive without the extra $600 weekly unemployment payments that expired over the summer.

The extra $600, which expired in late July, “was huge for our community,” says Taneia Ledwicky, vice president of IATSE Local 484, which represents film and TV craft workers in Texas and Oklahoma. “We need it to the end of the pandemic. Extend it to the end.”

When the epidemic hit in March, the city’s live-event venues all cleared their calendars through July, scotching the massive ten-day SXSW film, music, and video-game festival scheduled for Mar. 13-22. Local 205, which represents live-event workers in this city of 990,000 people, was particularly hard-hit. “We lost all our work when SXSW cancelled,” says President Rachel Magee. 

Because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s “failed reopening,” however, infection rates in Texas “went through the roof” beginning in late June. Now, Austin’s venues will remain shuttered at least until the end of the year. Only three of Local 205’s 149 members are currently working, she says.

Work at Austin’s live entertainment and events is split between union and nonunion jobs, as well as between regular employment and contract gigs, Magee, a props master at the Austin Opera for 11 years, explains. The opera, the Paramount Theatre, and Ballet Austin are union shops; conventions are mixed; and live rock’n’roll is generally nonunion, although Local 205 has been representing workers at the annual Austin City Limits music festival for the past four years. 

“Nobody has seven months, or a year of savings. The rent’s got to be paid.”

Either way, she says, “it’s all feast or famine. Nobody has seven months or a year of savings. The rent’s got to be paid.”

The national IATSE has gone into its reserves to continue health-insurance coverage for laid-off members, she adds. But because many workers get unemployment benefits based on income listed on W-2 tax forms for employees, but not for contract gigs paid with 1099 forms, one of her coworkers is receiving only $62 a week.

Laid-off workers scorn the Senate Republicans’ argument that cutting off the $600 supplement will encourage people to go back to work. “There’s no more work to go back to for us, because there’s no more events,” says Crump, “or if there is, they’re using skeleton crews.” Because live entertainment depends on crowds, it will likely be the last industry to return once the pandemic fades—and she fears that many jobs will never come back.

“All my convention work, my opera, ballet, is gone,” says Andrea Weaver, a Romanian immigrant and audiovisual technician at the Austin Symphony who has been a Local 205 member for five years. She’s looking to change careers, to “whatever I can find.”

“This is about all the entertainment-industry workers in the city,” says Zach Boswell. “Just to see all the careers that have gone away is depressing. We built the reputation of Austin on our backs.” 

Boswell, wearing a black T-shirt advertising being on the crew for the Deftones rock band, has been in the industry for 18 years. He worked the lights at Stubb’s, an 1,800-capacity music venue and barbecue joint on the Red River Street club strip, for seven years before starting his own production company, Ilios Lighting. His wife’s also in the industry, and they’ve been going into their retirement savings and 401(k) plan to keep up the mortgage payments on their house.

“Without the extra $600, we will lose our home within two years,” he says. “We’re both in our mid-to-late forties, and we can’t change careers.”

“These guys made my career,” says Dave Bass, who worked his way up from a hotel technician to a project manager at Freeman, one of the nation’s largest providers of audiovisual technology for corporate events. A union shop, it was the largest employer of IATSE members in Las Vegas, he adds. But he was furloughed after the epidemic hit, and then laid off in June.”

“I worked there for 36 years,” he says. “Only job I ever had.”

“It’s not every day you lose a career,” says Ethan Thayer, who’s looking at nine months or more of unemployment after 15 years of driving, managing tours, tuning guitars, and setting up the amplifiers-and-drums “backline” for local venues and touring rock bands. “If we don’t have music, what else do we have? It’s the live music capital of the world, man!”

September 11, 2020

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