Casuals on the front line as coronavirus cancellations spread

The chaos caused by the cancellation of performances and closure of venues during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous stress for gig economy workers, freelancers, and those working contract to contract.
Casuals on the front line as coronavirus cancellations spread The already precarious gig economy have been rocked by the closures and cancellations associated with COVID-19. Image: Shutterstock.
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Richard Watts

Friday 20 March, 2020

As the impact of COVID-19 spreads across the nation, casual staff and artists alike have been caught up in the chaos.

Among those most impacted are freelancers, gig economy workers and those working contract to contract. Having seen shifts cancelled for months on end, many are now questioning how they will keep a roof over their heads while theatres and performing arts centres remain dark.

Bek Duke, a Melbourne-based merchandise supervisor, has seen months of work cancelled in the last few days.

‘People like myself, we plan as far in advance as we can. That’s not always possible, but for some reason we always manage to have enough hours in various jobs and side hustles to stitch together a full working week,’ she told ArtsHub.

Duke’s schedule for the next few months was supposed to include another week’s work on the musical Come From Away, followed by shifts with Melbourne International Comedy Festival, some Bluesfest sideshows in April and a number of other gigs in May. She’s now uncertain how she’ll pay her rent. Nor is she alone.

‘It’s all up in the air at the moment and it’s not just me – it’s everyone working in events, tourism, hospitality, anything in the arts sector. Every single person involved in putting on a show or event has been impacted. That’s the artists, obviously, but also anyone involved in gigs, festivals and exhibitions – the venue staff, admin, box office, tech, the bookers and promoters, food and bev, and other suppliers. In that entire community almost every single person I know has lost a significant amount of work ‘cause no-one’s sure how long this is going to last,’ Duke said.

‘Almost every single person I know has lost a significant amount of work.‘

- Merchandise supervisor Bek Duke

Her concerns are shared by Miki Ensbey, a Darwin-based sound engineer and production/site manager, who has seen her work dry up due to state and federal advice designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

One of Ensbey’s major concerns is that the work she was supposed to do in the coming months would help her build up savings to get through leaner months towards the end of the year.

‘I have work lined up to September – up until then is the peak season in Darwin, "the dry". Events have had to be cancelled for at least the next three months, possibly six. Our whole household are in the arts industry … so rent and food are the primary concerns, and for the whole year, not just this three to six months, as most Darwin events happen over this time,’ Ensbey explained.

South Australian arts worker Ella Worthington – currently employed as a marketing coordinator for a major festival – is also deeply concerned  about her financial circumstances.

‘I have worked casually in varying roles for the last 12 years. I have always been paying rent and travelling for work or paying university fees resulting in a week-to-week lifestyle as many people within the industry are. I have studied for five years to get to the position I am now in, with everything crashing down. I cannot even secure work in the hospitality industry considering these new restrictions limit indoor venues to 100 persons and people are cancelling their functions resulting in no additional bar or catering shifts,’ Worthington said.

‘I am worried that I will find myself without a roof over my head, without food in the house and without any savings in the coming weeks. I have applied for all jobs I have seen, including cleaning and supermarket roles. I have even tried to apply for Centrelink assistance but been knocked back as I am still technically employed, even if I am earning under the threshold for Newstart allowance.

‘I am worried for myself, and all my current co-workers in the same position who will be unemployed and potentially homeless in the coming months without support,’ Worthington said.

HIGH AND DRY VS HELPING OUT

The precarious position of gig economy and casual workers has been recognised by compassionate employers, who have thrown casual workers a lifeline in the form of a few week’s paid work – more, in some instances.

In Victoria, casual staff employed by state-owned institutions have had confirmed shifts honoured for at least a fortnight.

‘We are committed to supporting all staff as much as possible through a range of options, including paying casual staff for their rostered shifts over the next two weeks,’ a State Library Victoria spokesperson told ArtsHub.

Arts Centre Melbourne confirmed that it will support casual employees by honouring all agreed rostered hours of work through to Sunday 29 March 2020.

‘This period is nominated because it gives employees some short term certainty while we work with government on how to best support our casual workforce,’ a spokesperson said.

Museums Victoria said they are ‘committed to providing support for all of our employees and volunteers and to protecting our community during these unprecedented and challenging times. All existing rosters of our casual and shift workers will be honoured as we continue to work behind the scenes.’

Major performing arts centres in other states are also trying to protect their casual staff while venue doors are closed.

Louise Herron, CEO, Sydney Opera House, told Arts Hub: ‘The Sydney Opera House is committed to supporting our people as much as possible through this difficult and uncertain time. Casual staff will be paid for their rostered shifts that have been cancelled, up to and including 29 March.

‘We are regularly communicating with our staff and will keep them updated as we work through the latest government advice and impacts beyond 29 March,’ Herron said.

A spokesperson for Adelaide Festival Centre said: ‘We understand the impact the closure of Adelaide Festival Centre to the public has had on our valuable casual workforce, and we are awaiting advice from the State Government of South Australia about how the effect on casual staff will be addressed.’

In Sydney, Griffin Theatre Company has elected to support artists and casuals as best it can while their small Darlinghurst theatre is closed, calling their decision ‘the right thing to do’.

‘Griffin will still provide financial support to contracted individuals wherever possible – this will include the actors, directors, stage managers and designers employed on cancelled shows. Our casual Box Office, Bar, and Front of House staff will continue to be paid though this period, with some creative adjustments to their responsibilities (sorry in advance to whoever has to deal with the Tupperware up the back of the office fridge...),’ the company said in a statement.

Griffin’s Artistic Director Declan Greene said the decision to ‘protect and financially support’ artists and casual staff was made a priority at an emergency board meeting held on Tuesday night.

‘We recognise the conditions of chaos and extreme peril this pandemic is putting on people into in terms of their safety and stability,’ Greene told ArtsHub.

Board Chair Bruce Meagher  said the decision to finally commit to supporting artists and casual staff wasn’t even debated.

‘We think that this is a crisis. We’re in the fortunate position that we have a reserve and what’s the reserve for other than to use at a time of crisis?’ Meagher said.

‘We’re in the fortunate position that we have a reserve and what’s the reserve for other than to use at a time of crisis?’

- Griffin Chair Bruce Meagher 

According to Greene, Griffin has enough reserves to support artists and casuals for up to three months. ‘We have small reserves and we are prepared to dip down into them … We know we can keep operating as a stable and solvent company for three months but beyond that period is an unknown – and that’s partially about the fact that the numbers are still out for us – everything is still being modelled.’

While Greene recognises that companies need to respect their bottom line, he believes that at this point in time it is more important to respect their employees.

‘I hope that companies are not protecting their reserves at this time … especially the larger companies who have considerable reserves. I hope that they are putting the safety of their employees, casual and permanent and contracted artists, above that,’ Greene said.

In contrast, and setting a shocking precedent, Opera Australia recently suspended its orchestra without pay, promoting a protest by orchestra members in front of the company’s Sydney headquarters on Thursday.

Read: MEAA supports musicians in Opera Australia stand down

Opera Australia subsequently announced that orchestra members can ‘bring forward two weeks of their leave as there are no performances scheduled at which they can play in that period,’ according to CEO Rory Jeffes.

ArtsHub understands that not all of Opera Australia's state and federal funding bodies were consulted about the company's move to suspend its orchestra without pay, a move which also runs contrary to the sector's national need for stability and collaboration in a time of crisis.

Victoria’s Minister for Creative Industries, Martin Foley MP, told ArtsHub: ‘The decision by Opera Australia to stand down their loyal orchestra members without regard to the national effort to sustain creative communities is extremely disappointing.

‘These actions run counter to the work of the Cultural Ministers teleconference and the state and federal cooperation in developing measures to support arts organisations through this difficult time,’ Foley added.

Other major companies have behaved more responsibly, with a spokesperson for The Australian Ballet telling ArtsHub: ‘The Australian Ballet and our wholly owned subsidiary Orchestra Victoria are prioritising the health, wellbeing and safety of our employees as our absolute priority.’

The spokesperson continued: ‘While our current/forthcoming Melbourne and Sydney seasons have been cancelled, our employees are being paid and we are operating as normally as is possible. We are planning for a time when we will all need to work for home and in doing so will ensure that all essential work continues so that we are ready and able to return to the stage as soon as we can.

‘Orchestra Victoria staff are working from home where that is practicable. Our Orchestra Victoria company members are being paid,’ they said. 

A spokesperson for the Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance (MEAA) told ArtsHub on Friday that discussions with Opera Australia were ongoing in order to ensure that other staff – including crew, wig-makers and chorus members – were also able to access paid leave during the shutdown.

‘We're urging all companies in the sector at the moment to keep calm, to wait to see what kind of government stimulus package is announced, which we hope will come in the next couple of days,’ said the spokesperson.

‘We want them to wait to see how that can help them through this period before making any drastic decisions to stop production or stand down workers. For instance, in places where there isn't an audience and there's no apparent health risk, we're still seeing people being stood down.

‘And tied in with all of this is obviously the need for government assistance, targeted assistance for the arts sector - without it that's why companies like Opera Australia are suddenly in trouble,’ MEAA's spokesperson concluded.

PRIVATE SECTOR RESPONSE

In the private sector, some casual front of house staff with the Marriner Group (who operate venues including the Princess Theatre, Regent Theatre, Forum Theatre and Comedy Theatre in Melbourne’s CBD) also say they have been let go with no support.

One long-term FOH staff member, who asked not to be named, described ‘the brutality of Marriner’s not valuing or caring about their staff,’  in an email to ArtsHub.

‘I’ve spoken to other casual box office and FOH staff at other venues and most are getting paid till the end of the month or [the end of] the roster they had. Marriner’s actually didn’t help us at all. We worked Sunday night on Billy Elliot, Come from Away and Harry Potter then Monday morning we got an email telling us all future shifts are cancelled and our head office manager will be at the counter in our absence to deal with refunds.,’ they said. 

Marriner Group CEO Jason Marriner defended the company’s actions in the face of a crisis that was ‘unprecedented and frankly previously unimaginable,’ saying: ‘Getting through the coming weeks and months is going to take considerable effort and sacrifices from everyone – but our company is committed to getting through this.

‘It is obviously more difficult for a non-government funded, private theatre company dependent solely on box office receipts for income, but our company is determined not to let anyone, be it casual or permanent employee slip through the cracks – our frontline strategy has to be communication,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘We are also encouraging a Peer to Peer program and are asking all of our staff to support their work colleagues by staying in touch with each other regularly.

‘Personally, I feel this situation is going to get worse before it gets better, and it won’t be solved by a one or two-week one size fits all approach,’ he said.

Marriner also noted that the company had been able to secure ongoing work for back of house casuals, at least for a couple of weeks.

‘In the short term we have managed to space out the bump-outs of shows in our theatres to allow a couple of weeks of ongoing work for crew, rather than rushing to now non-existent deadlines,’ he told ArtsHub.

Government intervention urgently required

Clearly, there is an urgent need for the Federal Government to throw everyone in the arts sector – especially artists and casual workers – a lifeline in the form of an emergency support and stimulus package.

Live Performance Australia has called for $850 million to be invested in the sector in order to secure its future.

Casuals and contract workers have echoed that call and identified key areas in which they think action is needed.

‘I would like the Federal and South Australian governments take immediate steps to secure our livelihood,’ said Ella Worthington. ‘We need to be offered alternative work and we … should at very least be provided the support that is given to Centrelink recipients in assisting us to apply for jobs and secure employment.'

She continued: ‘We are used to the demanding nature of festivals, events and hospitality industries and could certainly be used for gainful employment throughout this crisis. Hospitals, schools, and all remaining open avenues must need more help throughout this time. Why is there no suggestion of where and how we can gain employment? I would like to see compassion from our government in this time rather than ignoring the impending suffering and potential homelessness this may cause.'

Miki Ensbey agreed, telling ArtsHub: ‘The Federal Government needs to urgently relax temporary access to social services such as Newstart until this crisis is in the past and the regulations stop cancelling arts jobs. This would ultimately stimulate the economy, reduce the chance of social disorder and a recession, and increase social and economic recovery from this pandemic.’

Another step governments could take would be to freeze rental and mortgage payments, said Bek Duke.

‘One of the biggest stresses that I've got personally, and for everyone else I know, is housing. It's our biggest expenditure, whether you're renting or whether you have a mortgage and it is the biggest stress that we have. How are we going to pay our rent?’ she explained.

‘Something that I think Italy and a number of other places have done is they have put a freeze on payments for three months, I think, on rent and mortgages to ease the stress of the housing costs. That's a simple thing that we can do because we are now in a state of emergency – a declared state of emergency.

‘This is a time of crisis for the arts sector and freezing rent and mortgage payments would be one simple solution – just a little bit of relief for people to figure out how they're going to get by for what is now the foreseeable future,’ she said.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R FM, a program he has hosted since 2004.

Richard currently serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management, and is also a former Chair of Melbourne Fringe. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, he has also served as President of the Green Room Awards Association and as a member of the Green Room's Independent Theatre panel. 

Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend in 2017. Most recently he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize for 2019.

Twitter: @richardthewatts