As Covid-19 demolished the live entertainment industry last spring, The Second City laid off its entire night staff, about 90 part-time and full-time service workers. While there was some confusion at the time as to whether the action was permanent—an email announcement seemed to use the words “layoffs” and “suspension” interchangeably—the famed Chicago institution clarified the matter in October, when it announced that it was adjusting the night staff’s employment “from suspended to terminated.” Now under new ownership, The Second City has informed its former night staffers that their jobs will not be waiting for them when the theater reopens.
In an email sent in late March, The Second City announced that going forward its restaurant will be managed by The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, which operates two restaurants and a bar in the theater’s Old Town complex. “Food and beverage, we have acknowledged, is not our core competency,” the email read. “Fifty/50 has demonstrated its ability to champion their staff and we believe they are in a better position to lead this area of our theaters and support the staff going forward… Night staff working in our theaters prior to the COVID-19 lockdown are encouraged to apply on Fifty/50’s website. We anticipate open positions will be posted within the next two weeks on Indeed and Craigslist as well.”
Second City did not respond to a request for comment about the announcement. In an email signed “Recruiting / Human Resources,” The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group told me that “previous employees of Second City will be given first priority to interview for any position that the Fifty/50 Group hires for within the theaters, and we will select the most qualified candidate for each position. There were a lot of great team members that worked at Second City and we hope to rehire as many of them back as possible, if they were in good standing with the previous management.” But the firm would not commit to rehiring every former night staffer who wants the job. “We have no experience working with any of the previous SC employees,” it explained. “Several job descriptions may be altered due to the nature of the theaters during the pandemic, so we are unable to determine at this time, who or who is not qualified for each position or what positions we will have available.”
Former night staffers were less than thrilled with the news. “The Second City has always taken advantage of the good faith of their employees,” Ale Domeier, a bartender who spent three years at the theatre, told me in a Twitter message. “A lot of people who lost their jobs were people who spent years working for the company just because they genuinely cared about the productions in the theaters, and because they had a deep admiration for the theater’s legacy.” Night staffers were active members of the community even in their off-hours, Domeier added, with many spending their paychecks on classes or small-scale productions at the theater. “It’s just upsetting to see so many dedicated people completely let down by a company they gave their lives to,” she said.
Adam Hildenbrand, who worked as a server before the layoffs last year, said in a Twitter message that The Fifty/50’s statement “sounds like bullshit honestly.” He was skeptical that many former night staffers will return. “I think they will likely give the few SC folks that actually apply an interview,” he said. “I couldn’t see them actually hiring many. They are changing everything and the way jobs operate. They don’t want a bunch of people that preferred how SC is meant to run that will go against the grain.”
The night staff announcement came during a remarkable unionization effort by Second City’s teachers. That effort ended successfully on Thursday, when the National Labor Relations Board ratified a vote by educators in the Chicago training center to form a union with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, joining their colleagues in Hollywood and Toronto. Second City’s onstage talent are represented by Actors’ Equity; in 2017, night staffers unsuccessfully attempted to unionize through the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, an effort they claimed was disrupted by union-busting tactics. Some were preparing to try again before the mass layoffs last year.
Hildenbrand and Domeier both pointed out that The Second City received a $3.2 million Paycheck Protection Program loan last August, two months before it informed night staffers of their permanent termination. PPP funds are forgivable if the recipient spends at least 60% on payroll costs. Businesses that don’t meet this threshold, but which spend the funds on other eligible expenses, must repay the loan (minus any partial forgiveness for payroll expenses) at 1% interest; businesses that spend the funds on unapproved expenses may be subject to legal scrutiny. Records published by the Small Business Administration show that in its loan application, The Second City said it would spend about $2.4 million on payroll for 490 employees and the remainder on rent. Four months earlier, the Chicago Tribune reported that Second City’s mass layoffs reduced its workforce from 750 to 250. The theater’s spokesperson did not respond to questions about the PPP loan.
Like other comedy theaters, The Second City received harsh criticism last summer for its longstanding institutional racism. The theater’s owners responded by declaring their willingness “to tear it all down and begin again.” Then, in February, they sold the company to private equity firm ZMC, perhaps best known for its owner’s role as CEO of the company behind videogames Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. In its email to former night staff, Second City said it was “working closely with Fifty/50 to ensure that they understand our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as our policies, procedures, and training in how to engage audience members.”
The Association of International Comedy Educators, the union representing Second City’s teachers, declined to comment on the night staff news. Actors’ Equity did not respond to a request for comment.
Seth Simons is the writer of Humorism, a newsletter about labor, inequality, and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons. Subscribe to Humorism to get posts like this in your inbox.