LOS ANGELES — As COVID-19 numbers surge in other states, California's curve has remained relatively flat since mid-September thanks to statewide safety protocols. But the lockdown has come at a high cost to the state's workforce, which in L.A. includes many creative workers. Recent estimates put creative jobs losses at some 284,000 since the pandemic began.
Artist and production designer Liz Toonkel has been trying to make the best out of a tough situation, she said. She was about to start work on a feature film when the initial pandemic lockdown put a halt on the project.
"Right before we got into lockdown, I was like, I'm getting a dog!" Toonkel said. "So, I emailed every foster."
Toonkel is one of several skilled craftspeople in Los Angeles who are finding it difficult to book gigs as production has all but ground to a halt. While unions and productions grapple with safety procedures and a COVID-19 vaccine remains a work in progress, Toonkel said she isn't comfortable returning to the kind of production environment everyone was used to pre-pandemic.
"That was just sort of a challenging time," Toonkel said of the early days of the pandemic. "Obviously, financially. And then just figuring out what to do every day."
Toonkel said she immediately knew the pandemic was going to go on for an extended period and, luckily, started applying for unemployment early. As a freelancer, her weekly unemployment benefit was only $48 per week. She did receive a stimulus check and applied for the Paycheck Protection Program. Even though some production has started to pick up again, Toonkel said she remains cautious.
"I'm someone who definitely wants to prioritize people's health over the economy," Toonkel said. "There are a lot of roles within what we do that have to be very close to other people, and it's making sure that those people have the time to do their job effectively."
Effectively and safely, Toonkel said, which can be difficult during productions that are often chaotic and crowded workplaces. Toonkel admits the pandemic has highlighted many of the problems of being a freelancer in a creative town like Los Angeles.
"Ninety percent of my income is through self-employment," Toonkel said. "Hopefully, this whole thing really shows our government that the way that they have unemployment set up is not beneficial to most workers because most people are freelancers."
The creative industry is an ecosystem with many peripheral and supporting industries at risk, as well. Many vendors that depend on Toonkel for business, like prop houses, have also reached out to her.
"They're like, if you do a small job, just call us and we'll help safely get you things," Toonkel said. "Everybody was just trying to figure out how to make their clients feel taken care of, and, you know, keep moving."
When no one knows what the future holds and how much longer the pandemic will continue, keeping the momentum going remains a considerable challenge for many of California's creative workers.