PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Members of a local stage workers union clearly remember the last show they put on before the pandemic brought Oregon’s entertainment industry to a screeching halt.
“On March 11th, we had just done the concert Tool at the Moda Center and Tool was getting loaded out and going to be sent down to be loaded in Eugene. And we got word that the governor was going to do a press conference that Friday and shut everything down,” recalled Rose Etta Venetucci, business representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE, Local 28.
The labor union represents employees in Southwest Washington, Portland, and Salem who work in the theater, broadcast, film, and live events production industries. The union has more than 200 members and represents 550 workers.
It’s been a year since local plays and performances hit pause and still, hundreds of workers represented by IATSE Local 28 still don’t have jobs.
“It’s not just ‘Oh, we lost our jobs.’ Our industry is shut down and it’s not that we don’t want to work. We want to work!” Venetucci said. “But we’re not allowed to work. We can’t work because of the shutdown.”
Without their jobs, many of these stage workers lost their health care coverage in 2020.
To try to provide some assistance to unemployed workers during the pandemic, Local 28 has been hosting a bi-monthly food and supply swap. They have volunteers collect donations and then set them up so people in need can take what they want.
Venetucci says some members have found jobs working for the Oregon Employment Department, Amazon, or at Metro transfer stations, but a lot of these jobs are part-time or don’t provide benefits.
After months of uncertainty, Venetucci says there was a glimmer of hope in fall 2020 when the Moda Center announced that it would once again be hosting Trail Blazers games. Moda Center production and technical employees started getting excited and preparing to return to their jobs, but then their employer, Rip City Management, told them they weren’t needed because there wouldn’t be any fans at the games.
However, Venetucci says fans or no fans, there were some positions that needed to be covered.
Instead of bringing employees back, she says Rip City Management had managers step in and cover.
“I have performed my job as the house sound engineer for the team for 24 years and have never felt that my position or any of my coworkers’ positions were ever in danger or that I would be replaced,” said Mickey Boyt, head sound engineer at the Moda Center.
Venetucci said the Moda Center only brought one of their union member employees back to do lighting at the games.
For Boyt, the last year has been emotional, stressful, and trying. Every day he waits for a phone call telling him he can come back and do his job, but so far, he’s heard nothing.
“I consider my job at the Moda Center my heart and soul,” Boyt said. “It’s tough not getting communication from people that you’ve been able to communicate with forever.”
Boyt helps support his daughter and his grandsons. One grandson has has ataxia telangiectasia, a genetic disorder that affects his immune system. Boyt’s grandson was also battling cancer, but it’s currently in remission. Without his job, Boyt can’t provide much support for them financially, but he has been helping his grandson with online classes.
For his own medical coverage, Boyt has had to cut into a fund he was planning to use as part of his retirement savings. He says the fund is quickly running out and he doesn’t know what he’ll do once it’s depleted.
Boyt says he hasn’t applied for other jobs because Local 28 has a hiring hall where they’ll dispatch workers for jobs at various event venues such as the opera, ballet and Broadway shows. However, due to the ongoing pandemic-related shutdown, there’s been little to no work at any of these places.
This leaves Boyt frustrated he can’t just have his job back.
“My work didn’t go away. My work still exists. My work is still there. Somebody else has lost their work and now they’re being told to do my work and I’m told to stay home and that’s not right,” he said.
IATSE Local 28 says under the current contract, Rip City Management isn’t required to use some employees for sporting events like Trail Blazers games.
The union held a hearing with the National Labor Relations Board for clarification over these jobs and won. So now, 65 people who have worked sporting events at the Moda Center previously are voting on whether they’d like to be represented by Local 28. The votes will be counted on April 1 and if the majority votes yes, the union will negotiate the contract and hopes to reach an agreement with Rip City Management that would require them to bring more employees back to work.
KOIN 6 News reached out to Rip City Management asking them to explain why they haven’t brought the union employees back. Rip City Management said they have no comment on the situation.
Venetucci says she knows event spaces and theaters are hurting without ticket sales and that’s a major reason they can’t bring workers back. She’s also hoping some government assistance could be made available for these places to allow them to create jobs again.
IATSE Local 28 plans to meet at the Moda Center again Thursday before the Trail Blazers game to once again hold signs saying they want to work.
On Saturday, March 13, at 11 a.m., they’re also holding a peaceful solidarity rally to recognize the shutdown of the live events industry due to the pandemic. They plan to walk around the blocks of Southwest Salmon Street, Southwest Broadway, Southwest Madison Street and Southwest Park Street. They’re inviting workers from all industries to join them in the demonstration.
Boyt says he plans to keep participating in these “solidarity actions.” When he attends, he holds a sign with a quote from Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard: “We achieve more when we work together.”
“We should be working together right now in this time of trial and they should be standing behind their employees in this time of trial,” he said.
For now, he continues to wait for his phone to ring, letting him know he has his job back.