Labor leaders from five unions including Actors’ Equity Association today joined together to demand Senate action on the HEROES Act, calling the additional $600 in weekly pandemic unemployment benefits essential for food and shelter.
On a telephone press conference led by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, leaders from unions representing workers in theater, hospitality, food service and transportation, among others, called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pass the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, which includes the unemployment benefit expansion. The act was passed by the House of Representatives in May.
“Every time we hear some salaried senator or representative paid for by our tax dollars say that $600 will discourage us from working is an insult to every working person in America and in our industry,” said Kate Shindle, President of Actors’ Equity Association.
With regard to the 51,000 actors and stage managers working in the theater industry, Shindle said, “We went from record employment last season in the American theater to nearly 100 percent unemployment. Members are worried about the basics, paying rent and groceries, and they are especially worried about health care.”
“Right now, the entire industry is shut down,” Shindle continued. “That means no work, and no employer contributions for health care. The longer the pandemic rages out of control the more likely our members – and everyone in the arts – will face a health care crisis without action from Congress.”
Shindle addressed the circumstances of theater workers from New York City to Orlando, Florida. “With Broadway closed, the $600 a week has been indispensable – it was helping to pay for basics like diapers. In Florida, we have hundreds of members who have been locked out of their workplace by Walt Disney World. Without the additional benefit, they have seen their unemployment slashed to $275 a week.”
Equity and Walt Disney World are in a stand-off over the union’s request for COVID-19 testing and masks for the approximately 750 professional actors who typically perform in the park’s stage musicals. Without an agreement, Equity members were not recalled to work when the park re-opened in July.
D. Taylor, president of the Unite Here! union representing workers in, among other industries, hotel, gaming, food service and transportation, said, “Nobody’s going to get rich on $600 a week, but maybe they can survive. In places like Florida where unemployment only lasts for 12 weeks, it’s the only money people are going to get. We don’t want to see a scenario where people are out on the street with no place to live and no food to eat.”
Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, representing a wide range of industries including nursing, corrections, child care and sanitation, expressed exasperation with Senate inaction.
“I think I speak for my fellow union leaders when I say that I am out of patience,” Saunders said. “It is shocking and shameful and scandalous that the Senate still hasn’t taken action. When voters feel the pain of lost jobless benefits, when they see longer emergency response times and trash piling up in their streets, when they see small businesses in their communities going under, when they face eviction or foreclosure, rest assured, they will know exactly whom to blame in the upcoming election.”
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