Dance workers in search of liveable wages

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The struggling artist narrative has been exhausted to threads, laying bare the truth of the industry: It’s not sexy to be poor. Dance workers are particularly marginalized, experiencing median wages of $17.99 per hour here in the Bay Area — many of them working less than full time — where a salary of $111,136 barely supports a family of four.  What is sexy is a government that sees these numbers and thinks, “We’ve got to save our arts and culture sector through bolstered social insurance programs.” There must be change — specifically, there must be more robust wage replacement and income guarantee programs that consider both contracted and employed dance work.

OK, let’s ground ourselves. By dance worker, I refer to dancers who work under the control of a director or an entity, often from project to project, in contemporary, hip-hop, modern, performance art, dance theater, improvisation and ballet aesthetics, to name a few. These dance workers gain artistic income from being employed (W-2) or contracted (1099). They often must supplement that income with additional jobs in retail, reception or administrative work, usually as employees, but not exclusively. The result of this piecemeal, mixed-earner status is that dancers cannot receive full unemployment benefits when they are in-between work. How can a dancer thrive in this environment?

Here, I am advocating for dance workers to earn a living wage that is supplemented by the government only when needed and never through side jobs.

Dancers are workers and, more often than not, are low-wage gig workers. In a way, dance workers are akin to other gig workers, such as those in ride-share and food delivery industries. One necessary distinction, however, is that those gig workers can purportedly choose their hours. As a dancer myself, all of my dance work has been restricted to rehearsal times, venue availability and “seasons.” While all gig workers need stronger legal protection, it is important to distinguish the gig work of dance workers from gig work writ large.

The seasonal aspect is the crux of the issue. Is it the source behind why many dancers are mixed-earners? In my experience, seasons can last as little as a day, six weeks or two months. Rarely does a season take up most of the year, as is the case for more commercial jobs in ballet companies or on Broadway. I have yet to meet a dancer who gets paid during the off-season unless it’s from a side job.

The low wages, meager hours, volatility of finding dance work and lack of governmental social support all create massive barriers to entry into the dance field. This overwhelmingly affects people of color and people from low-income backgrounds, a consequence that has been highlighted in a recent report by the Urban Institute and Center for Cultural Innovation. This report tells us that in California, people of color make up only 40 percent of arts workers compared to 60 percent of the state workforce. With the high costs of training and education required for dancers, historically marginalized groups often do not have the capacity to endure student loans for the promise of a less-than-adequate wage. There has been minor progress, though.

California’s Assembly Bill 5 legislation requires many dance workers to work as W-2 employees, allowing them to receive the minimum protections of workers’ compensation, paid sick leave, federal and state withholdings and access to state unemployment and disability insurance. Unfortunately, due to the scarcity of funds in the dance field many non-profit organizations continue to misclassify their dance workers because they can’t afford to switch them from 1099 contractors to W-2 employees. When dancers lost work due to the pandemic, we felt the full brunt of this system. Many of us were ineligible for unemployment benefits and others received only partial wage replacement due to their mixed-earner status. While the government acknowledged these issues with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Mixed Earner programs, they have since expired. It’s time to build off of these programs. 

If California indeed supports the arts, then it needs to recognize that there is no other way to demonstrate this support than through social insurance programs — not through entrepreneurship, not through litigation for lost wages and certainly not through private funding. Only social insurance programs can help dance workers, performing artists and gig workers to earn a living wage.

What we need is a wage replacement program that puts a living wage into the hands of committed dance workers when they are in between gigs while also making up the difference when they are underpaid.

As a result, rather than seeing a mass exodus of arts workers away from California, dance workers will instead flood into our scene, initially working for others before branching out to make their own work. This will in turn create more jobs, drive more payees into the system and ultimately lessen the reliance on social insurance programs as dance workers will now have more work to do. Additionally, this will build the social profile of California’s arts scene and draw in more audiences.

We need a holistic approach to revitalizing the arts. Start at the source — the labor, the worker — and don’t rely on any trickle-down theories. Supporting dance workers is not negotiable.

Dalton A. Valerio is a professional dance artist, a doctor of laws candidate and a counselor in the Workers’ Rights Clinic at Berkeley Law. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.