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Live events workers rally for extended unemployment benefits, as venues remain shuttered

'We were the first out of work, and we’re going to be the last back to work.'

A rally in front of the State House by artists asking for extended FPUC, the extra $600 provided on top of unemployment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program is due to end July 31.David L. Ryan

Performers and crew members banded together in a Tuesday State House rally and Monday phone bank campaign to demand extended unemployment benefits for live events workers during the pandemic.

The movement comes the week before the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, which provides out-of-work people with an extra $600 each week, is set to expire.

Eileen Valois, cofounder of the National Live Events Coalition, said extending the program is crucial for the 12 million live events workers — performers, stagehands, ushers, security guards, sound technicians, and more — currently unemployed nationwide.

“This is the largest industry that no one’s ever heard of,” said Valois. “And if we didn’t put our voices together, no one’s going to help us. We were the first out of work, and we’re going to be the last back to work.”

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The events industry brought in $1.4 trillion last year in the United States, she said.

Artists do not expect live events to return until at least the end of year, even as restaurants and businesses have welcomed the public back in accordance with the Massachusetts reopening plan. Theaters and wedding venues are among those allowed to open, but with social distancing restrictions that limit financial feasibility.

The artists’ movement this week has involved a slew of advocacy groups — the Live Events Coalition, the local International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees chapter, the Instagram page @extendpua, and former employees of the Blue Man Group, among others. Voicing similar concerns, each launched campaigns through social media and private Zoom meetings. Their separate efforts gathered support through word of mouth and hashtags, such as #calltimepua, #extendpua, and #facesbehindevents.

At both the rally and “call swarm,” the activists asked legislators to extend the pandemic unemployment programpast July 31 and to continue to fund Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for self-employed or freelance workers who do not qualify for unemployment. The Senate is scheduled to discuss the benefits this week.

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As part of the call swarm, at least a few dozen people phoned and e-mailed officials Monday afternoon — the first day Congress was back in session — encouraging them to vote in favor of the extension, said longtime Blue Man Boston musician and campaign founder Victor McSurely. He said performers and supporters in Massachusetts, Georgia, Florida, California, New York, and Illinois participated. (Employees of the Blue Man troupes in five cities were laid off when its parent company, Cirque De Soleil, filed for bankruptcy in June.)

At Tuesday’s rally, activists shared their stories of economic hardship with a crowd of around 100 protesters on the steps of the State House. They toted signs with messages including “Don’t close the curtains on our livelihood,” “Don’t leave us behind,” and “I’d still have my job if the government did theirs.”

Freelance scenic artist Pecan Johnson said she has not worked since March, when most theaters closed indefinitely. “I wish we had a way around it, but shows cannot come back until this is under control,” she said. “And we need this money to survive. We live in Boston after all.”

Stagehand Michael Geoghegan said in his speech that without extended benefits, he will dip back into poverty after more than two decades working his way out.

“I clawed my way into the middle class,” said Geoghegan. “I grew up really poor in Mission Hill, and I’ll be really poor again if I don’t get PUA.”

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Tim Briggs, the operations manager at wedding venue Canoe Club Ballroom, said live events workers should not be denounced or “called lazy” for supporting extended benefits.

Briggs formed the Wedding and Events Alliance of Massachusetts, which recently drafted a proposed reopening plan for live events that was sent to Governor Charlie Baker on July 13.

“We are a proud group,” he said. “We want to go back to work because we love what we do. We want to see the couple’s face when they cut the cake. We want to watch the family dance at the reception. But if you’re not going to help us, to make it safe to go back, we need this help.”

Multiple activists took issue with Ivanka Trump’s recent ad campaign that urged Americans to explore new industries while the pandemic constricts the job market.

“Asking us to ‘pivot’ into another job is insulting,” said Kate Hausler, a former stage manager with Blue Man Group. “I will not do that. I knew I wanted to do theater since I was 12, and this industry is my life. Why doesn’t the government do their job instead of telling us to change ours?”

Officials, including state Senator Patrick M. O’Connor and US Senator Ed Markey’s state director Jim Cantwell, stood by artists and workers at the rally.

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“[Markey] has not forgotten you,” said Cantwell, who was wearing a Red Sox mask. “He’ll be fighting for your extended unemployment benefits in Washington today and everyday.”

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_


Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com.Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_.