Navigating Unemployment for Theatre Artists

Part One: Gathering Your Information

It can be exciting to work different places all the time, becoming an all-star luggage packer or just your car if locally….but it can also be a big pain to be a freelancer. I figured I’d start some posts on dealing with this life from what I’ve learned over the years. I make no claims to be an expert in legality, but I have been through enough that I’ve got some experience.

First and foremost, start making a list of every single show, benefit, and lecture you’ve ever done. Trust me, when you get a couple decades into this business, you’re not going to remember everything. I started my process a little late in the game, and it’s been fascinating to find old programs of shows I’d forgotten I’d done, like a one-week staged reading of a new work. These can be great references when you suddenly want to do more new works; perhaps not in the resume itself, but mentioned in your cover letter. And if you want to apply for unemployment between gigs, you’re going to need a lot of evidence you worked somewhere. I keep two documents, one a Word doc listing at bare minimum the Show, Theatre, My Role, and Dates (even if rough); this list goes all the way back to college. Include conferences you attend (especially if you’re a speaker) and awards you’ve received, if you may ever need to create a CV (curriculum vitae) for education. For more recent shows – those I’ll reference for taxes and/or unemployment – I do an Excel doc with many more details.

Are you eligible for unemployment?

If you only worked 1099 Independent Contractor gigs….you are likely not eligible. When you work for an employer, they send unemployment insurance taxes in to the government, and you’re getting payment from this. If you were a contractor, no funds were sent. If you did a combination of 1099 and W2 work, you likely are eligible, though you’ll get better returns if you did more W2 work. Everything is based on a formula of how much you worked on the right kinds of gigs, over a certain amount of time. And every state is different. More on that later.

When you file for unemployment, they’re going to want information for every WAGE-EARNING EMPLOYEE (W2) gig you’ve done in a given recent time period. To be safe, you’ll likely need the last 18 months. Unemployment claims are good for a year – and you can take jobs during that year, then go back on the claim – but must be “re-upped” every year. I’m in the middle of filing a new claim, as I’ve turned in my stuff and now they’re verifying it all. [Actually, I’ve also started working again, but this job is only 11 days long.] When I first filed with Indiana (again, we’ll get to interstate claims later) on February 4, 2019, they wanted records from the last quarter of 2017 to the third quarter of 2018. When I was advised to switch to Massachusetts later the same week, their lookback period was first quarter 2018 to fourth quarter 2018. So keep those records!

If you work on both 1099 (Independent Contract) and W2 (Employee) contracts, you’ll only get credit for those that were W2. However, while filing unemployment weekly, you have to declare ANY money you’ve made, including the 1099. Ultimately, you want to work more W2, as those are the only ones kicking back into an unemployment “fund” for your next claim.*

What they want to know for each job (both W2 and 1099, as can be answered)**:

  • Name of Employer/Company – Note, this is the payroll company as listed on your check; if you work at a theatre on a university campus, it’s likely the name of the university, not the theatre, for instance.
  • Payroll Address – what is listed on the check/paystub.
  • Physical Working Address, if different – if I worked both at an office and a venue, and the office is the same as the payroll address, I don’t bother with a second address; however, many times there is a payroll address that is quite different, perhaps not even the same state. [EDIT: This can get very funky if you’re on tour. I’d say contact your HR person to find out how folks file, as you’re likely not alone. It’s really about where the employer turned in unemployment taxes.]
  • In my Excel, I add a separate column to reiterate the state name (physical location), so I can sort by this later if needed.
  • Employer/Company Contact Person – their name, title, and phone number
  • Reason the job ended – get used to the term “lack of work”
Which of the following scenarios best describes your status with this employer? This employer told me that no work was available.
ABOVE: Screenshot of Indiana’s question about why you stopped working
Layoff: Your employment ended due to: lack of work; temporary layoff; your position being eliminated; employer's business closed.
ABOVE: Screenshot of Massachusett’s similar answer choice
  • Date you knew you were going to be laid off – I usually say “the day I was hired,” and a brief explanation describing theatre schedules with known final performances.
  • Was anyone else laid off at the same time? My standard answer is, “Yes, the entire cast and crew.”
  • Do you have a return-to-work date? This is something you really hope for; one time I’ve known I was going to be returning to a theatre a little later in the season, which fit in the time period unemployment requires. As a result, I didn’t have to look for as many jobs searches in the interim, which can be hard to find enough to satisfy requirements.
  • Are you union? – Yes….but when it says “Do you get your work through a union hiring hall?” My answer is no. That would also make unemployment easier. Ah well.
Are you a union member who is currently seeking work exclusively through a unio hiring hall or business agent?
ABOVE: Oh, how I wish I could answer this one yes. One benefit those with agents have. Or IATSE members. Not so much for Stage Managers….Also, this is a Massachusetts-specific question. Colorado only asks if you have a hiring hall. Actors are likely in the same situation as me in Colorado. Can anyone confirm?
  • Your rate of pay – Go back to your contract for the exact amount per hour or week; don’t worry about any overtime amount, just the base rate. The last unemployment customer service person told me that when I report 1099 work, I report the net gross AFTER taxes, but that was news to me. She confirmed that with W2, however, you always report gross earnings BEFORE taxes. Confusing.
  • The hours you worked per week – this is easier to say if it’s an Equity contract where it’s written down. Make your best guess for others, and record for yourself what you put. It’ll be especially important if you work a partial week and have to report one day’s pay by figuring out the ratio worked.
  • The start date and end date

Things to know

Unemployment’s work week is almost always (maybe always for every state?) Sunday through Saturday. Of course, a theatre/opera/ballet week is Monday through Sunday. You will nearly always have a partial week to deal with.

There is always a waiting period – I think it’s always a week – between the time you file and when you can start receiving money. Start your claim as soon as your job ends. Some states go on a daily basis, or from the last day of work, but some are to the “closest Sunday” to which you filed….so if you wait until later in the week, you essentially lose a week. From what I understand, some states may pay you for this Waiting Week, but I don’t think I’ve ever received money for it. If your work history takes a while to verify (hello, freelance theatre artist…) it may take several weeks to solidify before you see the money, though you’ll be issued anything after that Waiting Period.

While filing unemployment, you must be available for work, able to work, and pursuing work. It’s not a free ride and there are hoops to jump through, and weekly requirements to receive the money. But there are (usually) funds available for you.

Go, gather all this info, then stay tuned for part two of this not-so-exciting-but-worth-a-discussion series! If you’ve only had one or two long-term jobs in the last 18 months, you’re in good shape. If you do a lot of short stints (whether a six-week contract, or shorter opera, or yes, one-day gigs)….the sooner you start gathering this stuff, the better off you’ll be. If you’re about to file unemployment, concentrate on the W2 gigs. I tend to over-supply and give them too much information, but this last time I was told I shouldn’t have turned in any of the 1099 for the initial claim. You will definitely need this same information for your later weekly claims between gigs.