I’m a thirty-year old actor living in New York City, my home for eight years. I’m part of the SAG-AFTRA union, which offers members health and pension benefits, but like most other artists in the city, I have to work a side job to pay rent.
Mine is dancing at an underground club about two nights a week, which gives me enough time the rest of the week to audition and work on my own creative projects.
One night at the club several months ago, while I was talking to a client at the bar, a glass slipped from my hand and hit the bar-top just eight inches below, shattering everywhere. I tried to catch the glass with my left hand, but instead caught a shard that sliced my finger and cut an artery in my pinky.
I was lucky that one of the security guards at the club knew that my injury required more than just a band-aid, and drove me to urgent care. Except, when I got there, I learned that I was unable to claim workers’ compensation from the club because I am technically considered freelance labor.
The doctor at urgent care informed me that I would need to go to the emergency room to treat the cut artery. After more than six hours at the ER, I finally got eight stitches. But I refused to see a hand specialist — I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it.
My bill for those eight stitches was $5,000. I had to use my SAG-AFTRA insurance, which only paid for $3,000. The club continued to refuse workers’ comp, even though the accident happened in a place of business. But the same security guard helped me put pressure on the club to reimburse me for the rest. Through his help, and through lots of emails and nagging, I was able to make sure the rest of the bill, $2,000 wouldn’t come out of my own pocket.
What happened to me isn’t crazy — but that’s the point. Most of my peers my age don’t have thousands in the bank to cover small accidents. Artists — especially artists of color like myself — struggle to have some financial stability. Sometimes, this means having to turn to jobs like sex work just to make ends meet, in a city that is no longer affordable for all people.
What that also means for people like me is that we are forced to work in jobs that don’t consider us “workers.” Without people willing to fight for us, we’re one clumsy moment from being thousands of dollars in debt.