EXCLUSIVE: Ron Valentine, business agent of IATSE Stagehands Local 33 in Los Angeles, says he doesn’t expect concerts, sporting events and theatrical productions to return with audiences until 2021. Even so, he’s hopeful that the show will go on, even if it has to be without live audiences.
“We have been in discussions with employers to think about virtual concerts and private fundraisers at our venues such as the Hollywood Bowl or the Greek Theatre to keep the employer in business, as well as our members employed,” he told Deadline. “This is a time to work in unity and make it a win-win-win situation.”
“I always think of us as the Swiss Army knife of entertainment,” he said. In television, his local’s 1,642 active members set, rig and light the stages for game shows like The Price Is Right, soap operas like The Bold and the Beautiful, and talent shows like American Idol. “Although we have television slowly returning, 70% of our benefits are funded through live entertainment. This is very worrisome for our members future come 2021 without major contributions being made. We are a small non-profit organization that has served the City of Los Angeles since 1896 – the first entertainment local union representing Hollywood. We are facing about a $10-12 million loss this year in potential earnings and benefits for our members alone.”
“We have been working very close with employers and production companies to figure out different angles to approach getting back to live entertainment,” he said. “The staging side of it seems to be solid, but it all comes back to the safety for our members, and there is no way currently to test and check audience members attending the events of being COVID-free, leaving the door open for another round of spiking numbers.”
State and local governments have allowed film and television production to resume, but LA Mayor Eric Garcetti has hinted that the city may have to be shut down again if coronavirus infections continue to rise. “If this were to happen,” Valentine said, “and the State cannot find more financial relief for citizens, LA will face financial disaster from people losing homes not being able to make up the deferred payments from no income, and more businesses permanently shutting down.”
Another problem, he said, is that “We are seeing small non-union shoots popping up around town, which is sad due the fact most are fooling people with masks on but no real protocol for returning back to work, sanitizing properly or practicing social distancing. I had one non-union producer call me asking for our guidelines. I told him to sign a contract with the Union and we will be happy to help them. They were not interested, which tells me they are not interested in the health and safety of their employees but only their own wallet, which is nothing new with these fly by night productions.”
Valentine, who’s currently in negotiations with NBCUniversal for a new contract covering shows like America’s Got Talent, The Kelly Clarkson Show and Access Hollywood, said he’s confident that industry-wide protocols that have been adopted by labor and management will keep workers safe as they return to work.
“We have now a solid approved set of guidelines for return to work approved by the Heath Department,” he said. “Employees at Television City go through a weekly testing for COVID. The Bold and the Beautiful returned the last week of June. They were one of the firsts to return to a full production and all eyes were on them. The Young and the Restless is starting back, and four of our carpenter shops are back in business. America’s Got Talent has slated to go to NBCUniversal starting mid-July from its original destination of the Dolby Theatre. I understand Days of Our Lives is looking at starting in early September. I have to say I am proud of our members following the guidelines and taking them seriously. We at Local 33 have not had one positive test come up on our work calls yet.”
Here’s his harrowing account of the early days of the shutdown, and the herculean efforts made to protect his members and to get them and the town back to work:
March 11, 2020, was a day to remember, for it was the start of something we had never experienced before in life – the entire shutdown of live entertainment. It wasn’t bad enough we had gone through a stock market drop, acquittal of the President, the death of Kobe Bryant – but now a pandemic. I was attending a Women’s Luncheon in Inglewood, Ca. “Champions of Change” celebrating powerful women who are leaders for enormous venues such as the new SoFi Stadium, future home to the Rams and Chargers football franchise and the NFL Network. As I stood in a line with some of my attending members to get a plate of food, one of Inglewood Mayor James Butts’ assistants approached me with a message from the Mayor, who had received word that California is closing up due to COVID-19 and I should check in with the office. As soon as I got back to my table to make a call, one of my members had received a message that her work assignment for the next day, America’s Got Talent, was cancelled until further notice. I immediately called the office: word had come that the Forum is stopping the load-in for the Kids Choice Awards employing 300 stagehand positions. After a 30-minute drive back to the office, I walked into the office and one of our secretaries had informed me that members had called in reporting the Young and Restless and the Bold and Beautiful are shutting down at Television City Studios on Fairfax. Followed shortly with Days of Our Lives taped in Burbank. Hamilton at the Pantages Theatre came to a stop. I felt like the character Matthew McConaughey played in The Wolf of Wall Street when the market came to a halt. It was starting to get numbing and the phone calls increased from members asking for answers. All warranted.
Within three days, my business agent partner Robert Pagnotta and I had seen 98% of all entertainment production had come to a halt. We have over 1600 members (2100 participants) who we need to keep employed. We asked the employers to work together in unity with the Union to work out the best possible deal to keep a financial flow for regular employees at venues since at this time the Unemployment Benefit was only $450 a week. If you live in Los Angeles, you know a one bedroom apartment averages $2200 a month.
We all understood the situation and knew they had to step up to help us and the economy. Television City Services LLC was very generous to work out a deal with us to pay the employees 3 days (24 hours) per week while the employees stayed home in quarantine. Many of us were under the impression this would last a month to six weeks tops. Lee Zeidman, the executive for AEG in charge of Staples Arena and Microsoft Theatre in Downtown LA, spoke with the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, and Sparks Organizations with AEG to form a fund to keep all employees paid on days the game would normally be played at full salary with benefits for the hours they would normally work for the rest of the season. The employee was instructed to stay home and stay healthy. Extremely generous and a huge factor in keeping the Los Angeles economy going and food on the table.
Most network and studios I deal with covered their crews anywhere from 4-6 weeks of pay before being furloughed. Our movie theaters such as Grauman’s Chinese theatre, El Capitan, DGA, WGAW, kept their head projectionists on payroll 2-3 days a week for three months and we’re starting to see them furloughing their employees now. Pacific Theatres was generous to give the employees two full weeks of pay upfront for severance and getting them onto unemployment insurance.
Letters and calls over the next few days were sent to Ca. Representative Adam Schiff expressing the concern our employers do not qualify for the PPP (Payroll Protection Plan) due to having over 500 employees. Therefore, they are furloughing members much sooner than others from no funds. Our members work with multi-employers, making it harder for them to file for unemployment insurance since they did not have one employer to file against. I got a reply from Adam Schiff’s office expressing that they are close to passing the CARES Act and a one-time stimulus payment. This was a sign of good hope.
Our beautiful downtown music center featuring the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler, Mark Taper, and Ahmanson theatres had to face furloughing their employees giving them a severance and a solid gesture everyone will be back once production picks back up.
Close to a month into no production except for news media – and that had a very minimal skeleton crew to shoot one person in studio while the rest of the anchors were given news feeds from their homes via zoom. I started getting calls from many members stating they cannot get their unemployment benefits because of a few issues – one being the entertainment division was not recognized easily on the electronic form. Members thought it was a natural disaster, again checking the wrong box causing delays.
Many long days passed trying to assist members and get answers from our City Representatives on how to help our members get recognized for Unemployment. Adam Schiff’s office and other state leaders got in contact with the UI heads and had the form changed to highlight that the cause was from related COVID-19 shutdown. I still have members today who have started filing in March of 2020 and have not seen a payment, they have been continually cut off or lose power from waiting on hold well over a couple of hours, not sure how to navigate through the online UI form. Or the UI office does not understand our employers pay at different times, which caused a few of our members to be “suspended” for five weeks with no benefits. This was extremely wrong and not part of the employees’ doing, but they ended up paying for it. Our local’s vice president, Lee Casady, was very instrumental in assisting close to a hundred of our members to get through the system over a three-week period. It was very frustrating for our members not knowing where they were going to get money to assist them with bills and food. This raised another concern for all IATSE locals, and discussions started to help define areas that can help our IATSE members.
The IATSE Safety Dept. had worked closely with UCLA’s Infectious Disease Control to get ideas on how to combat this disease and how we get back to work. Kirk Jorgensen of the safety committee put in many long nights setting up tours in studios and film lots to explain to our friends at the disease control and Health department on how our business works and what a typical day looks like in the work place. Two committees were formed: one to create the “White Paper” for our motion picture Brothers and Sisters, and the second to create the IATSE Stagecraft Safety Committee for our Theatres, Arenas and Live Entertainment Venues for the employees’ safety while returning to work. Robert Pagnotta and I sat on the stagecraft committee representing the City of Los Angeles live entertainment.
The Los Angeles Federation of Labor, IATSE, and the L.A. Food bank came together to start enacting food distribution banks to deliver meals to families associated with the L.A. Federation of Labor, averaging 2,500 meals a day 1-2 times a week, at various locations throughout southern California –ll distributed by union members.
Local 33 members also took part in supporting the students at the John Burroughs High School in Burbank to help save their tech program. The Burbank Unified School District is facing major cuts, and the Tech Crew was on the chopping block. Burbank claims to be the Media District and has many studios in town. So why would they get rid of a curriculum that is widely used today? I believe with all the letters our members wrote, along with parents of students, and a personal letter and video from IATSE Local 33 directly expressing the importance of giving these students responsibilities, opportunity to teach students about working together in unity with choreographed moves during performances on set changes, teaches teamwork. The program continues on a smaller scale incorporated with the adult program.
Contract negotiations with studios and theatres continued via zoom, which was a new experience figuring out how we were going to caucus and have a private discussions 15 miles away from each other calling from our living rooms. The Local’s Trustees worked closely with our Employer Trustees to come up with a plan to keep health insurance going since we had no income coming in to pay the bill and no contributions coming in to fund the plan. Back to the tables for more bargaining, the Trustees managed to come up with a plan to give the Union Members of Local 33 three months of no Health payments and health credit for three months as well, meaning the Trust paid for each members’ minimum earned monies and monthly payment to keep their account active and funded.
Television City stepped up and paid for 57 employees’ Health/Welfare benefits up to July 31, 2020, as if they were working 40 hours a week in order to hold some ground on Health benefits. ABC’s General Hospital had paid extra weeks on Health as well for our members. This saved members an average of $950 out of pocket over three months.
Multiple meetings via zoom/phone with the health department and city representatives of Los Angeles to figure when the stay at home orders would be lifted getting ready for production.
We have now a solid approved set of guidelines for return to work approved by the health department. Television City with The Bold and Beautiful returned the last week of June. They were one of the first to return to a full production and all eyes were on them. In that first week back at Television City Studio, tests given by a private company that were mishandled by the testing company and the results came back inconclusive, delaying production another week. A new testing company was found and all results through re-testing were negative, therefore starting back up production. We have to thank LA County Health Director Barbara Ferrer and Television City COO Michael Klausman for putting in some late nights getting this issue resolved. We also thank Kevin James, who is Mayor Garcetti’s right hand man and liaison for film and television in Los Angeles. Kevin kept in contact with us on many subjects and got us answers we needed to help with the return to work guidelines.
Earlier in the year a survey came out indicating that the average amount of money spent by a patron who attends a concert, play, or production will spend an average of $23 a person on local business outside of the event. On a concert of 30,000 patrons, this is rough $600,000 going into the local mom and pop businesses, hotels, and restaurants in L.A. This town – Hollywood and for the most part Los Angeles – has fed off of the entertainment industry since IATSE came to L.A. in 1896. Entertainment made Hollywood what it is today and we are very proud to say we are a major part of that accomplishment.