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Broadway unions raise concerns on health insurance, the return of theater

A coalition of entertainment unions held a call with members of the press Wednesday to highlight the similar issues plaguing their members while theater and film productions remain suspended.

A coalition of entertainment unions held a call with members of the press Wednesday to highlight the similar issues plaguing their members while theater and film productions remain suspended.

Among the critical issues raised, Broadway union leaders spoke to the importance of continuing health coverage for their members, whether it be through federal subsidies, relaxed qualifications or through extended contributions from the Broadway League. As they await larger deals, unions are acknowledging that theater is unlikely to make a quick return.

“We were 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,” said Matthew Loeb, international president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

While the contracts differ among the theatrical unions, many members earn health insurance coverage based on a number of weeks worked or the amount of contributions made on behalf of the employee. That coverage has been put in jeopardy as theaters remain closed and workers are unable to earn further weeks.

After the initial closure of theaters on March 12, theatrical unions, representing actors, musicians, stagehands, designers, wardrobe members and more, reached a deal with the Broadway League that offered about three weeks of payment at modified increments as well as health and retirement contributions. That deal included an agreement to discuss further contributions should the shutdown of theaters extend past April 12.

On the call Wednesday, Loeb said that an extension of that initial deal “has not been consummated at this point.” However, IATSE has relaxed its own qualifications for coverage through at least the second quarter of the year and likely beyond, he said.

Equity continues to lobby the Equity-League Pension Health Fund, a separate organization that includes Equity and employer trustees, to find “creative solutions” for coverage, particularly for members who were close to receiving health insurance coverage through the union, but were not able to reach the requisite number of weeks, said Kate Shindle, president of the Actors’ Equity Association. The health fund has waived the $100 premium for coverage beginning May 1, June 1 and July 1.

The unions continue to lobby for the federal government to provide a 100% subsidy for health insurance coverage under COBRA, which allows employees to continue to receive their employer-given health insurance.

That subsidy will “absolutely be necessary” for members of the arts community, said Laura Penn, executive director of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. The next eligibility cycle for SDC members begins Sept. 1. To receive benefits during that cycle, members need to have employer contributions of at least $1,500 made on their behalf by June 30.

The union is in the process of analyzing the needs of its members in order to potentially obtain further coverage from Broadway employers. SDC has been working on a case-by-case basis with non-profit employers, many of whom have made contributions, she said.

“The long term impact of this on our health fund remains open,” Penn said.

Outside of their efforts lobbying for health coverage, unions, including Actors’ Equity, have been lobbying for increased arts funding to help support the industry. Equity is lobbying legislators to view the arts as an economic engine, rather than a luxury, Shindle said.

As they wait for increased funding, union leaders have been looking for other employment opportunities for their members. Shindle is researching the possibility of Equity members becoming contract tracers, or those who work for the state to identify people who have come into contact with COVID-19-positive individuals. Ray Hair, international president of the American Federation of Musicians, said some of his members have found continued payment through remote recording sessions for pre-recorded productions.

These opportunities are underscored by the uncertainty surrounding the date and nature of their members’ return to the theater. And as they wait, union leaders said they expect the challenges they face to increase.

“We are preparing for this to get harder,” Penn said.