Contract workers for summer festivals look for job options amid COVID

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of residents across the nation

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of residents across the nation in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Spring and summer in San Francisco are typically the busiest seasons of the year for Stephanie Mufson. 

Her small business, Parade Guys works with a group of 30 to 40 contractors to create floats and large displays for many of the parades in Northern California. A team of painters, builders, and sculptors would typically be producing floats for events like the San Francisco Pride parade or Fourth of July celebrations.

Stephanie Mufson's small business, Parade Guys, works with a group of 30 to 40 contractors to create floats and large displays for many of the parades in Northern California.
Stephanie Mufson’s small business, Parade Guys, works with a group of 30 to 40 contractors to create floats and large displays for many of the parades in Northern California.

Since large outdoor festivals are being cancelled and celebrations are moving to virtual formats, independent workers who rely heavily on seasonal events are now searching for new ways to make a living. 

“I’m highly qualified for all event work, but with no events, I’m not qualified for anything,” Mufson said. 

In California 1.6 million workers rely on independent contracting, freelancing, or gig-economy work as their main source of income. Since February, nearly 160,000 jobs in the art, entertainment, and recreation industry have been lost in the state, according to the California Public Policy Institute.

More than 950,000 workers in the state applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) between mid March and early June. The PUA program helps self-employed independent contractors who are not covered by traditional unemployment benefits. 

Mufson said the event industry seemed like “consistent and stable work forever” but added that the coronavirus pandemic “has been a terrifying wakeup call.” She’s not sure when she’ll hire contractors again for event work but knows her business only has about six months of runway left.

“If work does not pick up in December, then we’re gonna have to make some really hard choices,” Mufson said. One difficult decision Mufson hopes she doesn’t have to make is laying off her last full-time employee. 

At the beginning of the year, Mufson hired 25 contractors that worked with her onsite as full-time employees to comply with a new state law that requires businesses to classify gig workers and contractors as employees. 

But within months, nearly all of two dozen full-time workers at Parade Guys had to be laid off. 

Brian Travis, a musician and production designer, builds stages, large scenic paintings and oversized sculptures. He is Parade Guys’ last full-time employee and described himself as Mufson’s “second-in-command.” Travis said he knows the business will be forced to close if large outdoors events don’t return soon.

“There is no denying that this is a huge setback for so many people and myself included,” Travis said. He is learning new skills like 3D animation to prepare for future opportunities. 

Brian Travis said the tips he's receiving from supporters tuning into his weekly online music performances are helping him buy groceries.
Brian Travis said the tips he’s receiving from supporters tuning into his weekly online music performances are helping him buy groceries.

Travis has been through this before. He was laid off during the 2008 economic recession and after years of on-and-off work, the 49-year-old says he’s now “an expert living on very little money.” 

The quarantine has been an opportunity for Travis to reconnect with his music. He said the tips he’s receiving from supporters tuning into his weekly online music shows are helping him buy groceries while he lives on a “severe budget.”

As an artist, Lacey Bryant is also familiar with the stress of living paycheck to paycheck. She said working as a contractor is either a “feast or famine,” because “the next dry spell” is unpredictable.

“Sometimes there will be a lot of work and you’re terrible at ever saying ‘no,’ even though you are completely burned out because you know that the next month no one could be calling you.”

In March, Bryant was expecting to be called in for work at the Great America theme park in Santa Clara, where she helps build haunted houses and other summer-time displays. She’s still waiting for that call.

Artist Lacey Bryant is a trained specialist for
Artist Lacey Bryant is a trained specialist for

Bryant said she’s a trained specialist for “large-scale scenic work and sculptures,” but added that “outside the realm of art, I don’t have a lot of experience, so I’m not really quite sure where I would go at this point.”

When she’s not building haunted houses for Great America, Bryant works with Mufson on large sculptures for parades. She said without those parades, her savings will eventually run out. She is painting at home with the hope that the commission from that work will carry her through the pandemic. 

“At a certain point, I need to start thinking of something else to do that’s a little more valuable to people than art,” Bryant said.

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