More Than a Year After the COVID-19 Pandemic-Forced Production Shutdown, Female Artisans Are Still Feeling Ripple Effects

·6-min read

The past year has been “terrible” for Emily Tatum, a New Orleans makeup artist who works on television, film and commercials. Both she and her husband, a construction foreman on film sets, lost their jobs “completely out of the blue” last March when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S.

“It was just a complete nightmare for us,” she says. After months of joblessness, her husband found full-time work in October. Tatum unexpectedly found herself a stay-at-home mom for a large chunk of 2020, picking up a handful of commercial gigs. She did not resume working on a TV or film set until mid-May, 14 months later.

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The coronavirus pandemic’s economic toll has been devastating, shuttering businesses and forcing many to rely on unemployment benefits. The impact on women in particular is harsh: according to widely reported U.S. Department of Labor data, about 2.5 million women have left the workforce over the course of the ongoing public health crisis, far outpacing the 1.8 million men who have stopped working. Among women in the entertainment industry, the numbers are harder to quantify, but the effect of last spring’s months-long shutdown in TV and film production is still rippling through communities across the country.

Tatum says finding childcare for her 8-year-old twins was “definitely difficult. We didn’t want strange people coming into our house that weren’t in our bubble just for a day to watch our kids if we didn’t know where they’ve been.”

One local union leader in New York, who spoke under the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, says as live stage productions prepare to reopen, employers have approached her to ask for pay cuts or freezes for her members, most of whom are women.

“Here we are in a world of pay inequity in stage performance — because my people work in a female craft, they are already paid lower,” says the union rep. “There’s now an even bigger wage gap. We have people who have been out of work for over a year. And then you’re asked to broaden the wage gap between men and women even more?”

Globally, Oxfam Intl. puts the estimated damage at $800 billion in lost wages for women, noting they are “disproportionately represented in sectors offering low wages, few benefits and the least secure jobs.” And providing childcare tends to fall mostly on the shoulders of women.

“For women in every country on every continent, along with losing income, unpaid care work has exploded,” said Gabriela Bucher, executive director of Oxfam Intl., in an April statement. “As care needs have spiked during the pandemic, women — the shock absorbers of our societies — have stepped in to fill the gap, an expectation so often imposed by sexist social norms.”

For one Louisiana woman who works in the art department on TV and film sets (and asked to remain anonymous), the matter of who would stay at home to take care of her toddler during the pandemic was never in question. Her husband works full time in a field outside the entertainment industry.

“It’s always going to fall on me because his job is stable,” she says. “And he makes more money than me.” She is concerned about the low vaccination rates in her small town and has had to switch childcare providers for her toddler multiple times over the course of the pandemic. Staffers at the first daycare refused to wear masks, even after a COVID-19 outbreak at the center. Because of the concern that her child may suddenly be sent home and asked to quarantine, she feels she cannot commit to a full-time job.

Local union chapters have had to take on the added task of helping their members file unemployment claims, navigate job-hunting during the shutdown and even offer resources in instances in which some members have faced violent situations at home. U.N. Women has called the spike in domestic violence cases during COVID-19 a “shadow pandemic” and has called on private sector employers to “leverage their existing resources and influence to keep women safe at home and safe at work.”

Scenic artist Simonette Berry is the assistant business agent for IATSE Local 478, whose 1,600-person membership across Louisiana, southern Mississippi and Alabama is about 25% female and represents set designers, welders, gaffers, grips and other below-the-line artisans. She says COVID-19 has been an added stressor for its women members in a male-dominated industry, on top of sexual harassment and discrimination. One member who has been trapped in an abusive relationship during the pandemic has finally been able to find some work, says Berry, but is now having trouble finding full-time childcare. Her boss called on Berry for help.

The damage has not uniformly affected women in entertainment . Rachael Stanley, the executive director of Costume Designers Guild IATSE Local 892, says she has not seen any attrition among her membership, which is 83% women. And reps for IATSE Local 839, the Animation Guild in Burbank, say the number of women employed in animation under union studios actually increased since March 2020, given the remote-friendly nature of the job. But they echo the struggles working parents have faced this past year.

Meanwhile, in lieu of working, some women have turned their energies to activities with a greater purpose. Set costume designer and personal dresser Carmia Marshall David was working on the set of Starz’s “Power Book III: Raising Kanan” when the industry shut down last spring. She and her husband lost family and friends to COVID-19. She was also frustrated and heartbroken by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement.

“I decided to channel all my energy to do something more positive, more meaningful, and more impactful,” she says. “I got very involved with my union as we took the charge to try to find ways to create more racial equality within our union.”

She has since been working on ways to help BIPOC members feel more included and make others more aware of police brutality and inequality, starting a social justice task force and helping to write a diversity, inclusion and equality amendment to her union’s constitution.

“I feel like because of it, we are stronger,” says Marshall David. “We’re giving a voice to people who may have been silenced or who may be afraid to speak their truth.”

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