LD On The DL: Missing and Damaged

I lost something at the hospital. I had back surgery at the end of January. Because of an accident years ago, a herniated disc between the L5 and S1 vertebrae pressed on the nerve root for my right side. What was mildly annoying pain became a pain possessing fury equal only to the fires of Hell. I swallowed roughly 450 prescription pain killers and 1,200 Advils over a period of four months and spent the holidays in a painful, nauseated stupor unable to sit, work, play, or be merry and bright. On January 26, four doctors, several medical students, and nurses at Mount Sinai here in NYC cut into my back and, for three hours, repaired the damage to my lower spine. I left the hospital two days later a different person.

Severe, chronic pain is a funny thing. Your priorities get forcibly rearranged, and things that once mattered suddenly don't. Your tolerance for the small lies we tell ourselves and each other evaporate; things you could once ignore suddenly cannot be silenced. As I sat there in the dark hospital room drifting in and out of consciousness, snow raging down outside, morphine dripping into my I.V. every 12 minutes, one thought continually circled through my drug-filled mind: Is the entertainment industry in New York City capable of taking care of its people like I'm being taken care of now?

I was lying in one of the best teaching hospitals in the country being fixed to the tune of 60K, paid for by an insurance policy that would be prohibitively expensive to most of my compatriots. The entertainment industry didn't fix my back; the finance industry did. My wife's company's insurance did. That's a sobering thought.

An all-out price war has engulfed city, and unfortunately, it's labor of all kinds that's experiencing much of the fallout. Non-union workers have little say in rates that haven't increased in a decade, from Off-Broadway to non-union TV to events, despite rising costs of living. Union labor is having different difficulties and increasingly must compete in an economic space with less and less room to fund basic protections middle-class workers have traditionally enjoyed. Unfortunately, that's what “rock bottom prices” really means. All the extras that make a middle class existence possible, like Unemployment, indemnification, health insurance, retirement, and disability, cannot be funded. Locals or independent freelancers must scramble to fund this stuff from other sources, usually at great expense. It's actually no discount at all. In reality, labor is making up the difference out of its pocket.

More and more I see New York, non-union labor split into three camps. One, exuberant kids willing to work for almost nothing because some college professor somewhere said, “You have to work for free in that big, bad city to get your foot in the door.” Thankfully in our early 20s, we plan on living forever, so saving for retirement is completely unnecessary. Furthermore, who needs health care when you're invincible? Having four roommates and/or four part-time jobs is totally sustainable. Viva life! Money will come in greater amounts tomorrow, after I've been in the biz just a little bit longer. Right? Around age 30, we grow old enough to become the second group: older, disenfranchised adults who are rapidly becoming poorer as the years progress. Stagnant incomes equate to an ever-diminishing ability to buy things as those dollars pay for less and less. Many want to leave, and some do, but most cannot. Finally is the third group, people like me who have spouses that provide those important perks. Our income adds a little more cash to the household pot. We deduct everything possible with a glib smile, a little game we like playing against Uncle Sam. Unbeknownst to us, Uncle Sam has the last laugh, since we then lack the documented income necessary to qualify for any type of loan at an interest rate that's not extortionate.

This question, wondering if New York is capable of taking care of its workers in our industry, was born in Las Vegas during LDI, and it's troubled me ever since. I was extremely fortunate enough to attend Love, The Beatles show by Cirque du Soleil at The Mirage, with the Live Design Projection Master Classes. Afterwards, some of the crew heads donated their time to answer the group's barrage of questions. Most of them were about technology, but the question that stopped me was, “How many people work the show?” The answer, if I'm not mistaken (because I was taking a lot of pain pills at the time), was around 150. That's 150 people with benefits, protections, probably retirement, and jobs capable of providing a middle-class existence. I realize it's hard to compare the two very distinct markets. I realize the economics behind a Las Vegas show are different than a New York show. I realize Las Vegas technicians probably have their own problems. I get it. But you have to agree that it's sickly ironic the City Of Sin more effectively protects its people than one of the cultural capitals of the world.

Anytime the equation of supply and demand becomes imbalanced, someone loses, and that's the reality all NY labor of any discipline collectively face. Our area has so much supply that all but a few of us are steadily losing. Why hire me when there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people a whole lot cheaper? Why would anyone hire a union employee, when this 21-year-old is salivating just to be on-site and can sling a wrench or program, “Good enough?” Furthermore, it's easy to convince ourselves we're doing people a favor by “giving them a chance,” the currency of choice in much of the NY theatre market, or paying a non-union freelancer well on a W2. But surrounded by beeping machines, I.V. bags, and taupe walls, I just didn't buy it anymore. It stuck in my throat.

Even the greatest W2 rate still falls short in the areas of retirement, long-term disability, and access to health care. And “giving people a chance,” is hardly magnanimous when poorly paid workers have no liability or Workman's Compensation to protect them, a prolific abuse in the events market. We New Yorkers fiercely love our city and are proud of what we do but all of us, from union to non-union, must realize this industry's ability to take care of us is rapidly diminishing. One freelance New York PM said to me that health insurance costs his family of four roughly $3,000 a month. Better insurance than they have would cost my wife $170 a month by comparison. Nothing about this is sustainable to anyone, and it will eventually force many of us out.

The day of my surgery, my wife took a sick day. As my spouse, she is allowed to use her sick days for family. She was paid an eight-hour day to sit and wait for me in recovery. How many of us have that same deal for our loved ones?

I hobbled into Mount Sinai a lighting designer and went home rethinking my career. Is it possible to be a successful LD, gaffer, PM, electrician, etc. in the New York market? Absolutely. Is it likely I'll ever be among them? Statistically speaking, no.

I'm asked to work for free roughly six times a month, an indication I think of how much free labor is actually available. In the beginning, I was flattered, but now I get annoyed. People usually want me to volunteer my services for publicity, exposure, or something else you cannot put into a bank. (I should have asked my spinal surgeon if he would do my surgery pro-bono if I gave him a mention in Live Design just to see the look on his face.) I'm tired of being asked to work for free and defending my rate. I'm tired of watching fellow freelancers get poorer by the year and lacking access to the protections I happened to marry into. They are one disaster away from bankruptcy. I'm tired of seeing letters from the New York Department of Labor saying so-and-so has applied for Unemployment.

I've been a designer all my life. I loved being a designer, but looking at myself in the mirror, I don't know if I have the chops to see it through anymore. My doctors say to walk three miles a day and stretch hourly, so I have plenty of time to ponder my existence. It turns out Mount Sinai took more than pain away from me. So, ultimately, what's left? Who am I? Staring into that mirror, I struggle to find satisfying answers. 

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