Broadway Producers and Unions Reach Emergency Relief Agreement

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Two-and-a-half weeks of reduced wages may stave off the wolf at the door, but for how long?

In the wake of a complete shutdown of New York theaters, a coalition of stage unions reached a deal Friday afternoon with the organization representing Broadway producers for cash payments and additional health contributions to aid stage workers in distress.

The emergency relief agreement provides short-term pay and health benefits, and applies to for-profit Broadway theaters and, in a pact announced Saturday morning, to Broadway shows on tour as well.

"We are grateful to be able to tell our members that the industry came together to provide some compensation during this terrible time," said the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds (COBUG), representing 14 labor organizations with about 75,000 members. "Broadway needs to come back and working together is the best way to make that happen. Now Congress must do its part for arts and entertainment workers on Broadway and beyond to ensure they have access to unemployment insurance and health care during this industry-wide shutdown."

Theaters went dark March 12. The Broadway deal, according to a union representative speaking on background, includes payment for the remainder of the interrupted week at normal salary but capped at 150 percent of the contractual minimums — which means a pay cut for some — followed by two weeks of salary at minimum scale, implying a pay cut for even more workers. They’ll receive health, pension and 401(k) benefits during those two-and-a-half weeks, and then health benefits only through April 12, with a commitment to discuss the possibility of additional health contributions the week of April 6.

"The leaders of our industry have been working tirelessly with our partners at the unions to forge an agreement that will address many of the needs of our employees during this crisis," said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, which represents over 700 producers and theaters. "We are a community that cares about each other, and we are pleased that we can offer some relief. Once we are past this challenging moment, we look forward to welcoming everyone back to our theaters to experience the best of live entertainment together once again."

The deal for shows scheduled to tour through Sept. 20 is the same as the Broadway agreement, while for shorter shows the salary payments last only one to one-and-a-half weeks. But while the for-profit New York flagships and their touring equivalents are receiving some relief, no deals are in place with nonprofits, off-Broadway houses, off-off-Broadway venues and theaters large and small throughout the rest of the country, such as so-called League of Resident Theaters (LORT) houses. None of those are members of the Broadway League.

"It’s the best deal we could get under trying circumstances," said Actors Equity president Kate Shindle, as quoted in The New York Times. "We’ve been trying to find the sweet spot between getting the greatest number of benefits for our members, while still trying to make sure we don’t bankrupt the individual shows in the process. Our members would like to have jobs to go back to."

The League echoed that point.

"We worked really hard with our colleagues in all 14 unions to come up with a fair and generous contract that we hope will tide everyone over until other forms of support can be developed," said St. Martin in the Times piece. "Our goal was also to get as many shows to come back as possible, and with the slim margins for 90 percent of the shows on Broadway, we had to take that into consideration."

A hoped-for reopening on April 13 seems unduly optimistic in light of current forecasts and the surging caseload in New York — nearly 12,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, some theaters in California, New York and elsewhere are streaming recordings of their productions under a special agreement with Actors Equity.

COBUG-affiliated unions represent actors, artists, dancers, singers, musicians, playwrights, directors and choreographers, makeup artists, set, costume, lighting, sound and projection designers, stagehands, stage managers, ushers and ticket-takers, box office personnel, wardrobe workers, hairstylists, porters, press agents, company managers and house managers.

Among them, it was not clear how the relief deals work for playwrights, whose organization — the Dramatists Guild — is part of COBUG but is not actually a union and does not set minimums. (Disclosure: this reporter is an associate member.) Playwrights are sole proprietors who license their work to producers for negotiated prices that can include sharing in a profit pool. A DG spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.