When Kansas doesn’t recognize artists as job seekers, tragedy ensues

August 30, 2020 7:00 am

From left: Debra Bluford, Cheryl Weaver, Morgan Fairchild, Cathy Barnett and Jennifer Mays in the New Theatre & Restaurant’s 2017 production of “The Dixie Swim Club.” (The New Theatre & Restaurant)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Cheryl Weaver is an actor who lives in Lawrence.

So earlier this week I got a substantial amount of money from the Kansas Department of Labor. Substantial to me anyway, because I am an artist, an actor actually, and I know how to make a few thousand dollars last for six months or more.

It’s August now, but I have been submitting a weekly claim for unemployment since early April. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were more than 179,000 Kansas residents receiving compensation that month. Some of those folks began receiving their money a week after they first applied. I had a vastly different experience.

The pandemic has decimated America’s workforce. More than 16 million people in the United States were unemployed in July, down from the April high of 23 million. That’s 16 million people, 106,000 of them in Kansas.

The government and the media usually report the percentages, currently 10.2%, but percentages don’t reflect the heartbreaking numbers of individuals who suddenly find themselves with literally no income, many for the first time.

I’m pretty knowledgeable about the unemployment system. I’ve relied on it a lot in the last few years. Because as an actor, living in Kansas, I’ve watched my state eliminate the Kansas Arts Commission, then tepidly reinstate it with half the funding.

I’ve seen theaters and galleries and dance companies close their doors, eliminating jobs. I saw a little girl crying in the lobby of an arts center because her favorite class had been canceled. And this was before the pandemic.

Art doesn’t fit very neatly into a commerce package. I wrote a letter to Gov. Sam Brownback after he eliminated arts funding. His idea of “Artistic Capitalism” was untenable, and actually the term was being misused. The philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky created the term to refer to mass consumption of things that are attractive, or artistic. Art isn’t beauty, it’s truth. And truth takes funding.

But because of the pandemic, arguments about art’s value have been shelved for a while, along with art itself. When the show I was in had to cancel the remainder of its run, I was out four weeks of work I had counted on. Then another show was cancelled altogether. Then another.

So I applied for unemployment, and because some of my wages came from a different state, I had to wait. And wait. Usually my weird, cobbled together income can be explained to a representative at the Kansas Department of Labor, but this year it has been almost impossible to get a “claims specialist” to answer the phone.

The website is old and underlying programming hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. In April it crashed repeatedly. In May, the Kansas Department of Labor overpaid some individuals and then, tragically, clawed back the funds, resulting in thousands of accounts left empty and with overdraft charges. For more than four months, every time I went to the website, there was a big “Case Pending” sign on my page.

I am, of course, not alone. Lots of Americans have weirdly defined jobs that don’t fit neatly into the Department of Labor categories: carpenters, servers, truck drivers, tutors, and of course, musicians, singers and actors.

Some of us work seasonally, some entirely on spec. I’m a member of a union, Actors Equity, which sets my salary minimums, checks working conditions and requires the theaters who hire me to provide health and pension benefits. So far, and probably for the remainder of the year, the union is not allowing any theaters in the country to hire a union actor. And the jobs actors take between gigs, such as waiting tables, or tutoring, or teaching, have far fewer openings. Most of us will lose our health care soon.

Side note: An organization called Be An #ArtsHero, composed of artists, unions and institutions, has been petitioning Congress to allocate proportionate relief to workers in the arts. They have met with several U.S. senators but so far none in Kansas.

I am grateful that I finally got the assistance I need. My case was sent all the way to the governor’s office, where there are some pretty overworked but surprisingly upbeat aides who streamlined my case and got me to the right office at KDOL.

And I’m lucky. I have actor friends who haven’t been paid anything. Artists in America are usually the first to lose jobs or funding, and now, in the wake of this enormous health and financial crisis, we’re apparently some of the last to be saved.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here.

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Cheryl Weaver
Cheryl Weaver

Cheryl Weaver has performed in theaters all over the country. Locally, she has been in productions at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the New Theatre, as well as many of the other professional theaters. She has a one-woman show about the life of Annie Oakley. She is a proud member of Actors Equity and the Screen Actors Guild and when actors are finally allowed to return to the stage, she is scheduled to perform at the Unicorn Theatre. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence.