In between serving beers to customers during the opening round of the Big East tournament on Wednesday night, longtime Madison Square Garden vendor Gerard Cerda overheard the news he had been dreading all day.
Two fans were discussing the NBA’s decision to halt the season until further notice as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cerda had been following the spread of the virus in the media, but he hadn’t anticipated that it would wreak havoc on the sports world so quickly. The 45-year-old Bronx resident was smart enough to recognize that the NBA’s indefinite shutdown meant it was a matter of time before the NCAA, NHL and Major League Baseball followed suit.
For most Americans, the unprecedented suspension of the nation’s major sports means fewer entertainment options. For Cerda and tens of thousands of other ushers, ticket takers, security guards and concessionaires who depend on the income they earn inside arenas, it’s far more serious than that.
“If there’s no event going on, you don’t work,” Cerda said. “And if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.”
Having saved up enough money to support himself and his family while sports are on hiatus, Cerda is one of the lucky ones who isn’t living paycheck-to-paycheck. His big fear is whether he’ll be able to work enough hours to keep his health insurance.
Some of Cerda’s peers have even more pressing concerns than that. Friends or fellow union members have bombarded him with calls and texts since Wednesday night wondering how they’re going to pay next month’s rent or provide food and clothes for their kids.
“For a lot of folks, this is their only job,” Cerda said. “This is how they pay their bills, how they get health insurance. Folks are scrambling. People are upset. People are fearful. We’re trying to get answers. We don’t know what is going on.”
The widespread panic and uncertainty among Cerda’s coworkers is a reminder of who is hurt most the longer American sports stay on hiatus. It’s arena workers accustomed to making only a few dollars above minimum wage that will feel the squeeze more than deep-pocketed athletes or team owners.
Adelaide Avila has worked for 15 years at Staples Center. Now a cashier on the arena’s premium level, she’s also a rep for Unite Here Local 11, a hospitality industry union, which meant she was the de facto point of contact Wednesday night when news began breaking.
“In the stand that I work in, we were all like on watch, because we wanted to know what was going to happen,” Avila said. “When the news came down, people started coming up to me, asking ‘What’s going to happen about my health insurance? What’s going to happen about our paychecks?’”
With the coronavirus outbreak expected to worsen and sporting events unlikely to resume for weeks if not longer, NBA luminaries have gone out of their way to shine a spotlight on the plight of low-income arena workers. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban led the way during a news conference on Wednesday night, pledging to find ways to keep money flowing to hourly workers in need of aid.
“I reached out,” Cuban said, “to find out what it would cost to financially support people who aren’t going to be able to come to work.” He didn’t provide details about any plans, but hinted that it could be tied to volunteer work.
NBA players expressed support for their hourly co-workers. “We all have fun playing and watching NBA games, but many of our hard working hourly employees and support staff depend on wages from our home games,” Charlotte Hornets center Cody Zeller wrote on Twitter. “We’re going to make sure that they’re taken care of! Even if I have to pay out of pocket to help out.”
Kevin Love is doing just that, donating $100,000 to arena workers at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, while encouraging others to “join me in supporting our communities.”
Thursday, several teams contacted by Yahoo Sports indicated that they, too, would be looking at ways to help hourly employees get through the suspension.
“We are ... developing a compensation plan to continue paying our event staff and hourly workforce that is impacted with the changes to our regular event schedule,” the Cleveland Cavaliers’ statement read.
“We intend to pay all Pistons employees, including hourly and part-time workers, during the suspension period,” the Detroit Pistons said in a statement, without providing further details.
Of course it’s not just low-income arena workers who will suffer as long as there are no games for them to work. Also at risk of a massive financial hit are the bars, restaurants and hotels that are situated around stadiums and arenas and depend on the swarms of fans that pour in on game days.
Kilroy’s Bar & Grill expected to draw an elbow-to-elbow crowd lunch crowd on Thursday with the Big Ten tournament being held across the street at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The popular downtown Indianapolis sports bar instead was barely half full after the Big Ten initially barred fans from its tournament and later canceled it altogether.
Shane Sweeting, assistant general manager at Kilroy’s, fears it could get worse the next few weeks because of the suspension of the Pacers season and the cancellation of a previously scheduled NCAA tournament regional. He feels worse for staffers who had signed up for extra shifts and now don’t know if they’ll be able to rely on those tips and wages to supplement their income.
“It’s a big swing for business,” Sweeting said. “We went from having a very profitable month, probably our best month of the year, to ... I don't know.”
The mood was just as downcast at Brooklyn's, a Denver sports bar that caters to Nuggets and Avalanche fans.
“We just got a big kick to the chest,” manager Jasmine Nunez said. “We’re going to have summer come early for us, which is unfortunate, because both teams were doing so good.”
Brooklyn’s, which is just across the street from the Pepsi Center, is “very, very event-driven,” Nunez said. A popular pregame or pre-concert site, Brooklyn’s employs 23 servers, four hosts, eight bartenders and six food runners, plus all the cooks and dishwashers in the back of the house. The sports bar is an independent restaurant, not a franchise, and as a result, Nunez said, “our owner is hyperventilating a little bit.”
The disparity between gatherings is frustrating. “Tonight’s concert hasn’t been canceled,” she said. “We have Post Malone and Blake Shelton coming in this week. I don’t understand how we could have 18,000 people here this evening, but not have an Avs game tomorrow.”
Cerda said that most of his coworkers understand that American sports leagues were making a responsible decision by putting their seasons on hold. Health officials for days have called for no large public gatherings out of concern that it will accelerate the spread of the virus and potentially put more lives at risk.
It was also encouraging to Cerda that NBA executives spoke up on behalf of people like him. He heard Cuban’s pledge, as well as Golden State Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers calling attention to the cause of the 1,500 part-time Chase Center employees who are now out of work.
“It gave me a glimmer of hope that the low man on the totem pole is not forgotten,” Cerda said.
What Cerda hopes is that either professional teams or the federal government offer assistance to arena workers while play is suspended and make sure they don’t lose their benefit packages.
“I have saved some money thankfully, but I am concerned about my health insurance,” he said. “I have children, and the coronavirus scares the hell out of me.”
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