A Small San Francisco Circus Tried To Do Right By Its Workers. Now It May Be Going Out Of Business
Ironically, if Circus Bella had just waited to reclassify its workers, it might not be in this mess.
Abigail Munn wanted to run her circus company in an ethically responsible way, before anyone told her she had to.
After the California Supreme Court issued its 2018 decision in Dynamex Operations West Inc. vs. Superior Court, which created a new test to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, she could tell that, eventually, she’d probably have to reclassify her performers at Circus Bella.
“We saw the way the wind was blowing,” says Munn, who is a trapeze artist in addition to running the 13-year-old company. “At the time I liked the idea of protections of workers’ comp for my artists.”
Under the new guidelines, she’d have a hard time proving that her performers were independent contractors.
“I tell you what time you have to be there. I tell you what you have to wear,” she says of her workers. “By all of those rules, truly, I think our performers should be employees.”
After 2018’s big show, “Kaleidoscope,” on Treasure Island, she didn’t think her growing company would escape the scrutiny of the state’s Employment Development Department anymore. Changing early meant she could plan for it and do it on her own terms.
So in August 2018, Munn converted her approximately 26 workers to employees, long before California’s AB5, which codified the Dynamex decision, took effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Evidently, she was one of the few circus leaders to make that proactive move. As of 2020, there were only nine employers statewide in Munn’s workers’ comp category, “Carnivals or Circuses,” according to Brian Gray of the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau of California.
The first workers’ comp rate Munn was quoted was about 7% of her annual budget, but she later found out that was an error. Instead, the cost would be 21% of her budget, which before the pandemic was just under $900,000. Only one insurer, State Compensation Insurance Fund, would offer her a policy; the state-created insurer is frequently the only option for companies whose activities other insurers deem too risky to cover.
Heading into 2020, Munn budgeted for the increase. “I was like, this is ridiculously expensive,” she says. But she thought, “I’ll put it in the budget, and then I’m going to fight the rules.”
Then the pandemic hit, which led Circus Bella to cancel its performances, decimating its revenue. That happened to the rest of the arts and entertainment industry, too. But Circus Bella had an additional hitch: Now it had an expensive workers’ comp policy, one that assumes its workers are doing acrobatics when in fact they were all stuck at home, keeping limber as much as they could. Munn herself runs laps around Bernal Hill, does Pilates and makes sure she can always do five pull-ups…
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