EXCLUSIVE: Actors’ Equity Association has hired the high-profile safety consultant David Michaels, former administrator of OSHA under President Barack Obama, to advise and help the union develop the steps necessary for reopening Broadway and theaters across the country after the COVID-19 shutdown.
In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with Deadline, Equity executive director Mary McColl explains why the union believed it necessary to bring in an outside safety expert, what Equity expects Michaels to investigate, what’s next for the actors and stage managers of Broadway and the country’s circuit of regional theaters, and the #1 concern Equity members discuss when contacting the union.
Equity was among the first in New York’s theater community to raise concerns about what would become the coronavirus pandemic: The union began tracking the spread as early as January, making its first public statement on March 2 – 10 days before the industry-wide shutdown – calling for preparedness plans. Equity subsequently called on producers to postpone auditions, lobbied New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to prioritize worker safety as he decided whether to limit public gatherings, launched the Curtain Up Fund for emergency financial relief, joined other unions seeking state relief and waived quarterly premiums for the Equity-League Benefit Fund’s health coverage for May, June and July.
With the recruiting of Michaels, currently a Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health of the George Washington University and who served as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from 2009-2017, Equity is clearly signaling that the reopening of Broadway won’t happen before worker safety is assured. “We know what just the seasonal influenza can do to a cast,” McColl tells Deadline, recalling a theater company in Chicago that was sidelined in December with a B-strain flu. Theaters, McColl says, are “inherently dangerous workspaces,” with “things over our heads that weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds, things flying across the stage, wires laying around that you can trip over, traps in the floor.” Toss in a virus, she says, and Equity “knew that we needed outside help.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
DEADLINE: You’re announcing that you’ve hired David Michaels as a safety consultant. What brought you to that decision?
MARY McCOLL: We have been working on safety issues for the entire history of the union, ensuring that there’s a safe work environment. When I talk to people about live theater, one of the first things I tell them is that the stage and the work onstage and backstage is inherently dangerous.
There are things over our heads that weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds, things flying across the stage, wires laying around that you can trip over, traps in the floor. So you add a virus to that inherently dangerous work, particularly a new virus like COVID-19 that seems to be so dangerous, and we knew that we needed outside help. We don’t have the skill set to talk about epidemiology and virology. We needed to augment our knowledge base. David is a highly respected and knowledgeable workers’ safety expert, internationally known. We were lucky to have a contact to him. His additional knowledge along with our current safety knowledge is going to help us build out protocols that will make the workplace for our members and all the people backstage as safe as it can be in the face of this kind of virus.
DEADLINE: What exactly will he be looking at? The obvious thing that comes to mind is how long the virus can live on various surfaces in a theater – handrails and seats and armrests – but what else will Dr. Michaels be looking at that is specific to theater?
McCOLL: In hiring him, we’re thinking specifically about the workplace that our members work in – so onstage and backstage, and those areas are small, compact, with lots of people working closely. You’ve got stagehands and wardrobe personnel and our stage management personnel.
And then of course you have the actors who are trying to tell the story of the play and need to have emotional conversations on stage, maybe they have to cry, so there are tears involved. And sometimes that makes their noses run, so that’s involved. When they’re singing, sometimes they spit unintentionally. That happens. How long does the virus live on a prop and how many people need to touch that prop? How many times is that prop used in a 15 minute period? How does it need to be cleaned?
And there’s the issue of human interaction, which is the beating heart of live theater, the human interaction that happens onstage and and backstage. Actors need to change costumes quickly, and so have contact with wardrobe personnel, etc.
So what do we need to do? How do we modify the things we do, and what else should we do to keep things safer?
DEADLINE: The question that’s on everyone’s mind is, when will it be safe? If Dr. Michaels says, Look, this is not going to be safe for X number of months, where does that put you if some producers want to go back earlier?
McCOLL: Here’s the reality for us: One of the reasons we’re doing this is because we think that we can help the entire industry to build the protocols that we believe will be safe, but we also know that as we go forward with this we need to partner with the employer base because it’s in everybody’s best interest so that when we reopen we reopen in a way that allows us to stay open. I think we have one chance at getting this right.
So there are conversations we know that we’re going to need to have with employers. And to be frank, right now we’ve got employers who are saying that they want to have rehearsals as early as the beginning of May, and we’re working with them to help them understand that unless they can give us the appropriate plan that ensures they have taken everything into consideration, it will be very difficult for us to say to our members that they should go back to work.
DEADLINE: Are you hearing from producers in New York about going back that early?
McCOLL: We are hearing it from producers on the East Coast, but not yet from New York City. But we’ve heard it from producers on the East Coast as well as producers from the middle of the country.
DEADLINE: That would put actors in situations very similar to what hairdressers and tattoo artists in Georgia are going through right now: having to choose between health and livelihood. What do you tell your members?
I’m going to be frank: This is why workers need a union. This is why actors and stage managers need a union. Yes, it does put our members in a difficult situation. We know that our members want to get back to work as soon as they can. Many of them are living from show to show. Many of them thought they had this year set up with jobs, and all of those jobs are now questionable.
I read this morning that OSHA is maybe going to take the position that it is not the employer’s job to ensure that workplaces are safe from COVID. And it’s my understanding that the next relief bill is going to say that employers are not liable if employees catch COVID in the workplace, so it just reaffirms for me the importance of advocates who are willing to stand up for the working people of the United States. My job is to stand up, very specifically, for actors and stage managers, but they are workers, and workers in the United States right now need representation, and that’s why unions are really, really important.
So getting back to your original question, yes, it does put our members in a very difficult position. Our members have us to be a shield where appropriate, and we’ve made some very significant outreach to our members to let them know that they should call us immediately if they were offered a job now so that we can give them guidance about how to go forward.
DEADLINE: In other sectors of the entertainment industry, we’re hearing about Force Majeure and whether that’s going to allow producers to essentially terminate contracts. Is that an issue for theater on Broadway or on the road?
McCOLL: We’re finding that the producers on Broadway and on the road know the value of holding their casts together, so they’re not terminating contracts but actually asking actors to commit. They can get their shows up faster and more completely if they’re able to use the cast that was working in the show at the time the shutdown happened, both on the road and on Broadway. There have been a number of closing notices on Broadway, a number of touring shows that were slated to close midsummer or in June or September that needed to close early, but the shows that are hanging on and sticking it out for the most part would like to keep their casts together, unless they had already been looking to replace a cast or portions of a cast.
DEADLINE: What would you say is the No. 1 concern your members ask you about these days?
McCOLL: We all have this general anxiety, so they have general anxiety, and being an actor or a stage manager is already an anxiety producing career. They can go from job to job, and being in a place where they’re not sure those jobs are going to be there creates more anxiety, so that is a general thing that members call us to talk about.
But I think the first level of questions we’re getting now is about health care. For those members that are on our health care plan, will they lose their health care? The second thing that people are talking to us about is “When will I be able to go back to work? And can they make me go back to work? And I don’t know that I want to go back to work ever.” Those are the conversations that are happening, because there’s so little known about COVID-19 and we’re learning every day about new things relative to treatment or relative to what symptoms might be or relative to the number of people who don’t have any symptoms at all. This is why we needed to bring in someone to help us to think through these situations. This is why we think that Dr. Michaels is going to be such a great addition to the team and we’re so grateful that he had the bandwidth to help us while he’s working with other industries in health care, the nurses and doctors who are on the front lines. We’re grateful that he’s able to give us some time to help us work this through.
DEADLINE: Equity put out a statement urging COVID preparedness on March 2, 10 days before the shutdown. What prompted that? Were you hearing from cast members who were worried, or thought they were sick?
McCOLL: We heard about the virus and we knew it would eventually end up in the United States, and we knew that it could create a catastrophic problem for the industry. Because of the kind of workplace that we have, we have a non-medical understanding of what happens just with seasonal flu. Early in December or the end of November, there was a cast in Chicago – not the show Chicago, but the city of Chicago – working in a theater with a cast of about 17 people, and 12 of them went out sick with a B-strain influenza. And that’s not abnormal – the flu runs through a cast in a very specific way, from member to member to member. They’re in close quarters in dressing rooms, they are in close quarters on stage, sometimes they’re kissing each other, sometimes they are dancing with each other. Just singing standing next to each other you can catch the flu. So way back Equity started a partnership with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to provide free flu shots for our members, and with the great assistance of the Actors Fund, which helps everybody in the entertainment industry, we do what we can to prevent those kinds of viral infections among our people. Knowing what the common influenza can do to a cast and seeing how this virus was working, we knew that we had to be looking and thinking about it back in January.
DEADLINE: Did you get any pushback from producers or theater owners, or was there general consensus that COVID was going to be a massive problem?
McCOLL: Here’s the deal, there wasn’t a conversation where everybody said they had a general consensus. It was more that everybody was afraid and nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. It was an anxiety-producing situation. I think it was important for our members, for the city government and for our employers to get out ahead and talk about this early. I think that everybody knew there was going to be a big problem, but there wasn’t a big conversation about that. In these kinds of circumstances, I think that employers don’t talk to the unions about what they think is going to happen until they know what’s going to happen. That’s why it was so important that we got out ahead and signaled to our members and to the employers that we were paying attention, and that we thought there was a problem, and that we expected the government in the city and in the state to be looking at this and taking appropriate action.
DEADLINE: How long are you prepared to stay offstage?
McCOLL: That’s almost an existential question. Here’s the reality: Our members want to get back to work as soon as they possibly can. We want our members to be able to get back to work as soon as they possibly can for any number of reasons, not just because they need the income, but because theater in every city in the country provides an economic impact that all these cities are going to need. We understand we are part of a greater infrastructure. All that said, it’s our job as the union and the advocates for the workers that are artists and stage managers to ensure that their workplace is as safe as it can possibly be. We already work in an inherently dangerous work environment, even taking the virus out of play. And because there’s so much we still don’t know, we have to build protocols around what we do know. I’ve had employers tell me that they don’t think they’ll produce until 2021, and as I mentioned earlier, we’ve got producers that want to go into rehearsals for a show on May 6. What we know for sure is that we don’t know yet what is going to make the safest workplace possible. And that’s what we’re starting to work on with Dr. Michaels.
DEADLINE: You said one of the first things your members ask about is health care. What do you tell them?
McCOLL: There are members of ours that are on the Equity-League Health Fund, which is the fund the union participates in. There are members who are covered for an extended period of time because of their work eligibility, and then there are members who have started to drop off of that plan, unfortunately. That is the thing that we in the union are talking about a lot and working hard to try to figure out how to help and give some relief.
New York has kept its exchanges open through the 15th of May, so if people in New York are losing their work-related insurance, they have the option and opportunity to sign up for a state exchange Affordable Care Act plan. There are other states that are doing that as well.
The Actors Fund – and again, that is a fund for everyone in entertainment, which I keep saying because the name can make it sound like it’s solely for actors – they have a whole department that works with people to help them find health coverage. We’re lucky to have that as a resource.
Part of the issue is that not only are members losing their health care, but they’ve also lost their income. Even if they have Cobra protection, they can’t pay for Cobra insurance. We’re actively advocating for 100% Cobra subsidy, and working across the board on issues like unemployment insurance and access to unemployment insurance. These are things that are happening backstage, behind the curtain that members and the industry don’t see.
DEADLINE: Maybe a stupid question, but why would Equity members fall off the Equity-League insurance coverage?
McCOLL: The Equity-League Health Fund coverage is based on eligibility, based on the number of weeks of work. That’s how union funds work. There are different kinds of eligibility rules, but ours is based on the number of weeks of work. So if you have worked, for instance, for 11 weeks, you qualify for six months of health insurance. If you worked for 19 weeks, you qualify for a year’s worth of health health insurance, which is why I’m able to say we have members who know they’re covered well into 2021. They have built that much eligibility based on the fact that maybe they’re in a long-running Broadway show, or they had enough regional theater work that they were able to build up that eligibility.
But those weeks end, and once that eligibility ends, they’re no longer eligible for the health fund. And this is the thing that we’re trying to work on to provide relief.
DEADLINE: How long can unions keep going, financially, if the shutdown continues?
McCOLL: That’s a very hard question and a very sad question to answer. It could
go on for six months, eight months, 12 months – It could go on that long. There are people at this point who have been guaranteed health coverage through March or April of next year, so those people would have some some form of health coverage.
But every producer just went from having revenue to having no revenue. Labor unions went from having memberships paying dues, which is what keeps our business running and allows us to provide member services, all of that working income just stopped.
And even with all of the public policy work we’re doing and the outreach we’re doing to all of government, the Payroll Protection Act law that went into effect that allowed for small business loans, the Cares Act that allowed for small business loans to happen, excluded labor unions. So we’re not able to apply for or receive one of those small business loans even though we have employees and would be looking to keep those employees employed. So labor unions, if this shutdown extends for a significant period of time, are really going to have to figure out new ways of doing business in order to stay in place. If OSHA is not going to step up and protect workers, the workers need someone to protect them. And if the government is going to step back from its responsibility, then it’s even more important that unions are here.
I think even if we were able to start back up in September, we know that there are going to be challenges with audiences wanting to come to the theater, wanting to gather in large groups, and so already we have been talking to employers who are trying to think about that part of the business from a really creative way, artists thinking about the art form and how we can get the art form out to the world in a creative way. Can they sell half of the house on paper tickets for those people who are willing to go to the theater, and the other half of the house on a virtual ticket where people that stay home can see the show on a password protected platform, so that producers are not losing ticket revenue due to social distancing. We’re having these conversations all the time now.
I go back to my statement that it’s going to be very important that when we go back, we get it right the first time. When that will be, though, I don’t know. I reiterate the real importance of not rushing this, the real importance of taking a minute and looking at it from all aspects and ensuring that every part of the industry is safe for the workers and safe for the audience, and that we have been thoughtful and intentional about how we bring the industry back into play. We need the time to be able to work out the appropriate protocols and procedures.
DEADLINE: Why do you say you have one chance to do this?
McCOLL: We worry about a resurgence of the illness. If we come back to work too early, without the appropriate protocols in place to ensure the backstage and the front house is as safe as it can be and as protected from the virus as it can be – and that’s making an assumption that we’re going back to work before there’s a vaccine – we need to make sure that we’re as safe as we can possibly be. The seasonal flu took out that whole company of actors and stage managers in Chicago, and if we go back to work and there is a flare up of COVID-19 around a specific theater company in a specific city, it just sets us back even further to bring the audience back.