Paz-Cedillos and Shieh: A rough year for the creative sector
Photo courtesy of Mexican Heritage Plaza

So far, 2020 has been a rough year for the creative sector. From the ongoing repercussions of a well-intentioned, but poorly informed policy meant to protect workers (AB 5) to the cancellations of events that support hundreds of local artists due to COVID-19, our community life is reeling.

At the School of Arts & Culture at the Mexican Heritage Plaza (La Plaza), we’ve taken actions to address the challenging and changing landscape of our industry.

Assembly Bill 5 limits the number of workers classified as independent contractors. When categorized as employees, these individuals benefit from greater labor protections, such as minimum wage laws, sick leave and unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits. At La Plaza, where we provide after-school cultural programming, we converted our teaching artists to part-time employees before AB5 went into effect. “Business as usual” will cost more, but we acknowledge how our staff members enrich our community life. In other words, this was the right thing to do.

That said, for many of our colleagues and partners, implementing these changes will be harder. AB 5 endangers our collective ability to share homegrown creative content without getting mired in a tangle of red-tape and administrative costs. For example, according to this new policy, we are now required to convert one-time contractors to employees. The cost of bringing on an employee for a one-time gig only to have to terminate them is administratively inefficient and costly.

As a result, it’s often easier to hire from out of state. In San Jose, where many of our arts and cultural organizations manage budgets under $500,000, this law forces an impossible choice: hire illegally to uplift their diverse local talent or close their doors.

That was last month.

This month, the creative sector came to a complete halt. Life just got harder for artists and arts groups that depend on gigs and events to make ends meet. COVID-19 and the moratorium on gatherings of more than 100 persons is causing many organizations, including La Plaza, to balance obligations to audiences, families and partners as they prepare to lose revenue.

On Friday, we made the difficult decision to suspend our after-school arts education programming, which serves 1,000 local families. We also canceled all private and public events. For a cultural institution charged with the activation of a local gem, our decision to limit access to La Plaza was not easy.

And the ramifications of this decision are significant. By prioritizing the safety of our community, La Plaza lost $100,000 in revenue for the month of March. These funds support scholarships for students, access to venue spaces for community groups, mentorship for emerging leaders of color and access to a safe cultural hub for families in East San Jose.

Even more devastating, our working-class community is being disproportionately impacted by this global pandemic. For many, if they do not show up to work, they do not get paid. The mayor’s moratorium on evictions during the COVID-19 outbreak should only be the start of a safety net for our most vulnerable community members who lack access to stable, long-term housing. For them, the aftermath of COVID-19 will be deadlier.

So, how do we show up as our better selves?

  1. Be kind and support each other. Now is the time for empathy.
  2. For donors, funders and sponsors, now is the time to double down on the organizations you support.
  3. For elected officials and policy makers, now is the time to improve our system to protect our most vulnerable community members. How will you lead?

Jessica Paz-Cedillos and Vanessa Shieh lead the School of Arts and Culture at MHP, an arts and cultural institution in East San Jose that activates a local gem (the Mexican Heritage Plaza) and convenes over 70,000 people a year.

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