When a stagehand gets hurt, who pays?

Dress Rehearsal
The Mill City Summer Opera stages lush productions on the grounds of the Mill City Museum. The open air setting, and uneven footing, makes the show particularly challenging for technicians.
Photo courtesy of the Artist

One summer a few years ago, Sarah Salisbury was working as a technician on a production of the opera "Tosca" in the outdoor ruins adjoining Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis.

She remembers a particularly challenging scene change: "We had to pull down a house and move a bunch of statues, and the change took like 20 minutes with all of us basically full-tilt running. And there was this statue that I had been told from day one: 'It's rented, make sure nothing happens to it.'"

The statue was of the Virgin Mary and was almost life-size, fixed to a large pedestal. Salisbury guesses it weighed somewhere around 50 pounds. One night, Salisbury picked it up and slung it over her shoulder, something she normally didn't have a problem doing.

"But this was day five of 12-hour days and my ankles were just tired, and my ankles gave out while I was going down the stairs and I felt myself falling," she recalled. "But I was like, 'Oh my God — protect the statue at all costs!' And so I spun so I fell on the ground and the statue fell on top of me."

It landed on her leg, just below her knee, which started to swell almost immediately.

"I said, 'Hey, I think I should probably go to the hospital just to have it checked out,'" she said. "And they were like, 'Well, we really don't have workman's comp.' And I was like, 'Ohhh, OK."

Salisbury had been hired by Mill City Summer Opera as an independent contractor, not an employee. Because of that, her only option would have been to buy liability insurance or pay her medical costs out of pocket. That's money she didn't have.

Her leg eventually healed, but she realized how close she'd been to a catastrophic medical expense that she couldn't afford. Now she's involved with Technicians for Change, a group formed to seek better protections in case of injury.

Sarah Salisbury shows her bruise from carrying statue between scenes.
When Sarah Salisbury asked Mill City Summer Opera management about going to the hospital to make sure her wound wasn't too serious, she was told she would have to cover her own medical costs.
Courtesy Sarah Salisbury

It's impossible to say how many stagehands have faced the same situation that Salisbury did, but attorney Patty Zurlo said it's not uncommon. Zurlo specializes in working with artists and creative organizations. She said many young technicians aren't even clear on the difference between an employee and an independent contractor.

"If you are an employee you're entitled to certain rights. And the employer is required to provide certain benefits that, as an independent contractor, you waive all those rights. And some of those things are unemployment benefits, health insurance benefits, time off, worker's comp, paying into your FICA."

Zurlo said different government agencies vary in their definitions of precisely who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. But everyone basically agrees that it comes down to who has control — the worker or the employer.

A classic example of independent contractors are plumbers who come to do a job at a house. They determine when they will show up, set their own hours, bring their own tools, and hand the homeowner a bill when they're done.

By contrast, a theater technician shows up at a specific time to work assigned hours, is given the tools needed to do the job, and told precisely what to do. The theater company determines how much the technician is paid.

Theater productions rely on the efforts of technicians like Salisbury — people who are rarely seen on stage. They work long hours as electricians, carpenters and stagehands.

Theater technician Sarah Salisbury poses with the Virgin Mary statue.
Theater technician Sarah Salisbury poses with the Virgin Mary statue she carried up and down stairs between scenes, just hours before her ankles gave out from under her while holding it.
Courtesy of Sarah Salisbury

"I will run the lights and sound for a show," Salisbury explained. "There will be a designer who decides where it all goes, and then they'll tell me and I make sure it happens as they want it to ... Basically I'm the magic maker, backstage."

It's physically exhausting work, and sometimes injuries result. Salisbury pointed to her four years working with the Mill City Summer Opera, which stages lush musical performances in the outdoor ruins.

"The physical environments were rough, because it's outside in June or July, which is super hot, and that ground is super uneven and super unforgiving and so you just need to know where your step is, and you're running over concrete for 12 hours a day for three weeks, and you're just exhausted by the end, and being out in the sun all day doesn't help anything," she said.

Zurlo said technicians often don't feel they have the leverage to argue for employee status, but it's actually in the company's own best interest.

"In my viewpoint it could potentially end up being more expensive to them if they get sued or someone gets hurt, or killed even, on a theater set," she said.

So why do some theaters choose to take the risk of keeping their workers classified as independent contractors?

"When you're starting a small business, there's a lot of things that you're supposed to be doing, that you don't have the funds to do right away," said David Pisa, executive director of Walking Shadow Theatre Company in Minneapolis.

Pisa said Walking Shadow started out doing one show a year, with a bare-bones budget. But over the years the company grew and added more shows. Pisa said hiring its staff as employees was a priority, even if the staff worked only a few weeks each year.

"First, we switched carpenters and electricians in one year," he said. "The next year we switched box office and house managers; the next year we transitioned stage managers from independent contractor to employee."

Pisa said Walking Shadow spends about $7,000 a year on its production staff. He estimates paying for employee benefits costs $3,000 more. Pisa views it as a necessary expense.

"Just like people have obligations around being accessible to people with disabilities, to having gender balance in their programming and their staffing — to addressing historic imbalances around race — we have an obligation around how we treat our workers," he said.

Allana Olson, the founder of "Technicians for Change," said some of the oldest and best-known theater companies in Minnesota still hire their technicians as independent contractors. But the Mill City Summer Opera, where both Olson and Salisbury have worked, has been a particularly egregious case.

"We just want something that says 'Yes, we'll take care of you if you get injured, because we respect that these are abnormal conditions,'" she said.

Olson said she's reached out to Mill City Summer Opera for years, urging it to classify technicians as employees, but to no avail. And she's not alone.

Dylan Wright worked as a production manager for the Mill City Summer Opera for three years.

"What I was told was that employees were simply too expensive in any form," he said. "And that the Mill City Summer Opera simply couldn't afford to classify technicians as employees."

Wright said the Mill City Summer Opera has a budget of more than half a million dollars, and flies many of its performers out from New York. He simply didn't buy the argument that the company couldn't afford to pay for employee benefits.

Wright said he even went so far as to come up with a plan with another staffer: They would form a separate company, cover the liability, and then hire the staff out to the opera. But management refused.

"I think anytime you willingly expose someone else to potential harm, and you're not willing to stand behind them and take care of them or provide an opportunity for them to take care of themselves if they do get injured — I have some serious problems with that," he said. "And honestly, the lack of progress on that conversation is why I left the organization."

Mill City Summer Opera's founder Karen Brooks, who is both a professional musician and a lawyer, turned down repeated requests for interviews for this story. And opera management refused to comment about its hiring practices.

But those practices may be about to change. According to recent job postings on social media for this summer's production of "Carmen," the opera is hiring its production staff through a third-party agency that will provide them with employee protections. With management refusing to comment, it's unclear whether the opera is responding to Technicians for Change — or whether the change will be a lasting one.

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