Coronavirus Chicago: With venues closed, thousands of union employees are unemployed

CHICAGO (WLS) -- McCormick Place, Wintrust Arena, Navy Pier, United Center, and ballrooms across the city are empty, and that means thousands of union employees who set up live entertainment, TV and film sets are without work.

FULL LIST: Chicago area closings, event cancellations amid COVID-19 outbreak

"The bottom fell out of everything there," said David Gardner, a stagehand with Chicago's Stagehands Local 2. "All the employment is gone, all the shows are gone, so all of our work is gone."

David Gardner is one of 5,000 union workers who are stage hands, working for live entertainment, TV and film. They are members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), along with Stagehands Local 2 in Chicago.

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"It impacted the IATSE immediately and thoroughly, and it's been devastating to the members," said Craig Carlson, IATSE's Vice President, and business manager for Chicago's Stagehands Local 2. "We have been funneling them through unemployment, giving them different options. But the options are very limited."

For Gardner, it's a financial blow on top of a personal loss. His wife died of cancer in November. "We're making it through, have to do our best," he said, tears welling up in his eyes.

Fellow union members understand the professional and personal hardship right now, including stagehand Gustavo Diaz, who generally works setting up concerts around the city.

"I got people counting on me," Diaz said. He is the breadwinner for his wife and three children - two sons, 12 and 7, and his 8-year-old daughter. He said his wife, 33, is currently going through chemotherapy for breast cancer as well.

I'm a worker," Diaz said. "I would rather work than collect an unemployment check."

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The Chicago Federation of Labor, which represents 300 union with a half million members, is pushing on congressional leaders to act, saying workers need strong unemployment benefits and continuing healthcare.

"The aid needs to get to people who tie their boots every day, women and men who go to work to make our economy flow and are the backbone," said Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

Chicago's stagehands work at various venues. They can set up a stage and lighting at one hotel, and then move on to a different location for the next job, meaning they could be at 20 to 30 different locations. Logistically, that's making it challenging for them to file for unemployment benefits.

"They have a drop down menu, it shows you your employers. Most people have one, we have a drop down menu with 20, 22, 30," said Aileen Dimery, a stagehand who works at numerous hotels.

It's one challenge the members are facing as they eagerly await to get back to work.

"We're all in this together," said Carlson, "and together we will get through it."

The Illinois Department of Public Health has created a hotline at 1-800-889-3931. More information can be found at the IDPH website and the Chicago Department of Public Health website.
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