Don't Let Them Come Back From This

The UCB 4 made the wrong call. They should be shamed until they make the right one, and then they should give up the reins.

Last night members of the UCB community received a statement from UCB’s founders—Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh—on the layoff of almost all UCB employees last week. A hard copy of the statement arrived in some laid-off employees’ mailboxes earlier in the day. You can read it in full via Vulture if you would like.

The thrust of the letter is that they are very sorry for laying off their employees at the beginning of a global pandemic but you have to understand it was for the best. Their chief concern was “the safety and health” of their talent and staff: that’s why they “tried to act fast” in closing their theaters and training centers on the same day New York effectively forced them to. Then they were conscientious enough to issue layoffs swiftly afterward, recognizing that “it was a benefit to allow our team members to apply for unemployment early in the spread of the virus, while unemployment offices were not overwhelmed with claims.” Whether they recognized and ignored or did not recognize at all the benefits of severance packages and paying out sick leave, they do not say. Instead, this: “As a company, we were committed to paying our employees for every hour worked and for every vacation hour due." In other words, they were committed to doing what was legally required. Per California law, UCBLA employees received every vacation hour they had earned; in New York, which leaves PTO payouts up to the employer, some employees were paid much less than their total hours accrued. As with the tuition paid by students whose classes were indefinitely postponed, UCB refused to give that money up.

One bright spot in the letter’s preface: “For our full time benefit eligible staff, Amy will provide funds for a one month extension to healthcare.” This bit is fun because it underscores the lie of the whole thing. It seems to me that millionaires’ whose first concern is the health and safety of their employees would have offered these funds immediately and for a longer—let’s say an indefinite—duration. Apparently they were there the whole time; Poehler just didn’t offer them until UCB’s workers and fans reacted to the layoffs with condemnation, outrage, and scorn. How much more does she have?

There has been one thread of this conversation around UCB (and Second City) that calls for sympathy toward the owners, who have been running a business on thin margins and are doing the best they can in an unprecedented situation. If a company doesn’t have the money to make payroll, this argument goes, then it simply doesn’t have the money to make payroll; it’s not on the owners to dip into their personal checkbooks. I have no patience for this argument. Frankly I see it as denialism. This crisis is bad, it will get worse, people will die, they will not come back. We are all facing stark choices, but for people with millions of dollars to spare, the choices are even starker. The UCB 4 write, “With almost no revenue, (excluding online classes which will continue to be offered) it is not possible to employ the majority of our full and part time staff without causing the entire organization and the jobs it offers to cease to exist.” That’s fine. It’s fine! It’s fine for the business to fail if that’s what is necessary to keep its workers safe and healthy during a pandemic. It’s better for a business to die later than for people to die now. If you are prioritizing the long-term sustainability of your company in the face of short-term mass death, then I can only assume you do not recognize the reality of the situation. The alternative is that you do not care.

But the choice between “paying employees” and “sustaining the business” is a false one anyway. UCB’s revenue needn’t have anything to do with whether its employees get paid through the crisis. UCB’s owners should pay up themselves.

Do the UCB 4 have the means to float their employees for the foreseeable future? Of course they do. Amy Poehler is currently the executive producer and star of two network TV shows. She produced and starred in a wildly popular sitcom that ran for seven seasons and for which she surely receives substantial residuals. She recently invested in a Park Slope wine shop and appeared in a year-long national ad campaign for Xfinity. Her co-owner Matt Walsh co-starred in seven seasons of Veep; he was just in a Super Bowl commercial. Some may say Well that doesn’t mean they have the liquid assets to pay all their workers and to those people I say Yes it fucking does. I’m not suggesting they buy everyone a house. I’m suggesting they pay a few offices’ worth of people a couple thousand bucks a month until Congress gets its shit together. If somehow all their money is actually tied up in the markets, then they should liquidate their holdings. If that’s not enough, they should shake down all their rich UCB friends for money. They have quite a few.

None of this is fantasy. To see what it might cost, we can look at the off-Broadway theatre Ars Nova, which yesterday announced it will pay a living wage to everyone scheduled to work at the company through June 30th—a total of more than 150 people. I suspect Ars Nova, a nonprofit supported by grants and donations, has more money than UCB. But I don’t think it has more money than UCB’s owners. According to the theatre’s most recent available tax filing, in 2018 it paid a little over $1.7 million in salaries, wages, and benefits. This includes $273,750 in executive compensation, which presumably would be a less significant line item for UCB: other than CFO Daryl La Fountain, the executives allegedly take no salary. The $1.7 million figure represents a little over $1 million in growth from 2017, when those same line items amounted to $584,071. If we assume equal growth over the successive years, which is likely an overestimate, we arrive at a 2020 total of $3.7 million in wages, salaries, and benefits. This, again, is an annual figure: it presumably costs about one-quarter of that to pay everyone through June. That said, do I think the UCB 4 have $3.7 million between them? Yes I do. Do I think they have $925,000? Absolutely.

Some may feel it unfair to expect the owners to dig into their personal bank accounts. I would like to direct that concern for fairness in the other direction. For the last 20 years UCB’s business has relied on the unpaid labor of its writers and performers. This has likely been illegal the whole time. Let me repeat that: it has been illegal the whole time. I understand that UCB has done so much for so many people, and it is difficult to square something so beloved with something so rotten. But we cannot honestly face what is happening now if we do not acknowledge that Matt Besser, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh are in charge of a company that has perpetrated massive systemic wage theft. I know this seems hyperbolic. Wage theft is a very common crime that rarely gets prosecuted. Its gravity does not really factor into our collective moral consciousness. But it is a crime, and the people who commit it deserve condemnation. Am I saying the UCB 4 should go to prison? No, of course not. I’m saying they do in fact owe a lot of people a lot of money. Now is the time to start coughing it up.

But here’s the thing. They may not even have to do that to pay their laid-off employees through the crisis. Unless UCB has received an undisclosed abatement from its landlords, the company will presumably continue paying rent and other expenses on its venues and offices. Whether these tens of thousands of dollars will come from the company’s coffers or its owners, I do not know. But they exist, just like the funds Poehler suddenly decided to provide for healthcare. What this means is that the call the UCB 4 made last week boils down to something very simple: property over people. This was the wrong call, and they should be shamed until they make the right one. Then they should give up the reins.

If that costs the company as we know it, the cost will be worthwhile. They’ve left nothing to salvage but the community they never really cared about, a community that doesn’t need them at all. It’s been a good run, except for all the people they fucked over. Let this fucking-over be the last. Build something better without them. But first claw back every red cent you can.


Header image via Ed Kwon.