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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

Executive Director's Note - Jan. 22: In Like A Lion

Wednesday, January 22, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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We’re barely three weeks into the year and already it seems many months into this new decade. A presidential campaign surges forward with growing acrimony. A war with an almost-nuclear power is almost ignited, then averted, and now simmers somewhere on a backburner. An impeachment trial—only the third in our nation’s history—exposes the gaping wounds that divide these nominally united states. And in California, a new employment law, AB5, is upending long-standing practice in the nonprofit arts sector, sowing confusion as well as hope in its rocky roll-out.

Let’s start with AB5. As a reminder, AB5 codifies new definitions for employees and independent contractors. While its target was the “gig economy” – think Uber and Lyft – almost all of California’s economy is affected, including the arts. Even though redefining who is a contractor and who is an employee may seem arcane, the impacts on nonprofit theatre are huge.

On January 10, Theatre Bay Area’s board of directors issued a statement regarding the law. Since then, TBA’s staff and board have continued to engage in conversations with member artists and companies around the impact of the new regulations on their work and livelihoods. I’ve taken those messages to Sacramento where I joined Julie Baker, executive director of California Arts Advocates (CAA), and CAA’s lobbyist in a meeting with the office of AB5’s author, Assembly Member Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego County).

We know from our conversations with Gonzalez’s office that a follow-up bill, AB1850, is in the process of being drafted now. That bill will seek to address ambiguities and unintended consequences resulting from the original bill. And nearly every sector in the state is weighing in.

What we’ve relayed to Sacramento is this: That the unions representing theatrical artists have come out in strong support of the original bill. They believe actors, directors and designers are better served when hired as employees, with a salary of at least minimum wage, payroll taxes being withheld and benefits being accrued.

On the other hand, many theatre companies and other performing arts groups are seeing steep, sudden and unplanned for expenses. Depending on the company and their hiring practices, anywhere between 20% and 1,000% jumps in personnel expenses are being cited. For small-budget companies used to engaging artists with stipends, the increases needed to pay artists salaries of minimum wage, plus payroll taxes and benefits, are simply impossible. Leaders of these groups are eyeing the option of engaging artists as volunteers even as they explore what legal options remain to offer their theatremakers some kind of compensation.

We relayed these stories in Sacramento as well.

What realistically might be included in the follow-up bill is what TBA members keep asking. It’s difficult to say at this point, but what’s clear is that legislators need to better understand the impacts of this far-reaching bill on our field.

What can you do? Tell your story. Are you a non-Equity actor who sees your earnings about to rise as you go from being an independent contractor to an employee? Tell your state representative.

Are you running a theatre where you see increasing personnel expenses right in the middle of your season? Tell your state representative. Are you leading a small company that is looking at dramatically reducing artist compensation because you’re eliminating stipends and moving to all-volunteer casts? Tell your representative.

And tell us. Your story can make a difference. If you make it known. Write your state Assembly Member and Senator (email is fine) and when you do, cc me – We are keeping a tally of how AB5 is impacting our members – positively and negatively. And we are sharing that information with our colleagues at California Arts Advocates. And they are sharing all those stories with our leaders in the legislature and the Governor’s office.

It’s a new year. And while it may be coming in like a lion, we at Theatre Bay Area are committed to helping empower our community of artists to both surmount the challenges and seize the opportunities of this new, ferociously-starting decade.

Follow this link to find and contact your state representative. For more AB5 info and updates, visit