For the hundreds of part time employees that work at Pepsi Center during Nuggets and Avalanche games, fear, anxiety and nervousness suddenly grabbed hold of what was a fairly routine Wednesday night.
One arena employee, who we’ll refer to as Joe in this story (no one who spoke with DNVR wanted to be identified), was watching the first half of the Nuggets and Mavericks game Wednesday when he got an alert on his phone that the NBA regular season was getting put on hold after Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was just shocked,” said Joe. It felt like a bad dream.”
A day later the NHL followed suit, suspending their season over the rising threat of coronavirus. Joe’s nightmare turned into a two days of panic about where his next paycheck would come from.
Why the around-the-clock fear? As is the case for many hourly employees like Joe who work game nights at Pepsi Center, to ushers at the top of every section, to security, retail workers and service staff, the check they collect from working a Nuggets or Avalanche game is their only source of income.
Many have families with childcare bills to pay. Some are single parents. Others are students, and the evening shifts at Pepsi Center are the only ones that work with their day-time and afternoon class schedule. They’re not the flashiest gigs in the world and don’t pay a whole lot (many employees who spoke with DNVR were getting paid minimum wage) but it keeps the light on.
“You sort of feel like sports is this reliable thing that’s always going to be there,” said another employee. “You can always count on the fact that basketball and hockey are going to start up in the fall and last until April or May. All it takes is something like this virus.”
Currently, some workers are job hunting but with trepidation. The league said Thursday that the current hiatus is likely to last at least 30 days. But Pepsi Center workers are proceeding with some caution. If the league returns in one to two months time will there be fans allowed inside the arena, and will my services on game nights even be needed? Taking a new job now may mean more security and assurance that upcoming student loan, car, and rent payments will be made but it could mean shutting the door on their current employment.
One hourly employee who spoke with DNVR said that his other source of income can hold him over for one or two months, but even while collecting a paycheck from working Nuggets and Avalanche games he was living paycheck to paycheck.
Help could be on the way. Just moments after the league announced that the regular season was going to be suspended, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban committed to putting “a program” together the help the Mavericks’ part-time arena workers. The Cleveland Cavaliers said Thursday that they are “developing a compensation plan to continue paying our event staff and hourly workforce that is impacted with the changes to our regular event schedule.”
Players around the league have stepped up too. Giannis Antetokounmpo pledged $100,000 to the Milwaukee arena workers affected by the stoppage and following Antetokounmpo’s donation, the team stated that they’ll match all Bucks player donations to part-time arena workers. Friday afternoon, Blake Griffin said he’ll donate $100,000 as well to Pistons arena workers and Zion Williamson followed by committing to cover the salaries for Smoothie King Center workers for the next 30 days.
“These are the folks who make our games possible, creating the perfect environment for our fans and everyone involved in the organization,” Williamson in an Instagram post. “Unfortunately, many of them are still recovering from long term challenges created by Katrina, and now face the economic impact of the postponement of games because of the virus.”
Houston Rockets owner Tad Brown and Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler have also pledged to take care of their part-time employees.
Will more owners step up to the plate? Forbes reported in February that the average NBA team is currently valued at $2.12 billion, which is up 14% over last year. The Nuggets are currently valued at $1.4 billion, and while it’s commendable that players and a rookie in Zion Williamson, who’s earned a fraction of what Antetokounmpo and Griffin have made over their careers, are jumping to help in a time of crisis, isn’t it on those team’s owners to bear the brunt of the rippling effects from COVID-19?
When reached for comment, a Nuggets team official said nothing has been decided on at the time that this story was released.
As of Friday, Pepsi Center’s part-time workers have had no communication from higher ups on if there’s any sort of compensation plan or a program being put in place that will continue to pay them while both the NBA and NHL are in hiatus.
They continue to wait.
“I’m not sure where to go from here,” Joe said. “I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I’ve had this dealing of uneasiness since the announcement. I can’t live like this for that much longer.”
DNVR reached out to a Denver Nuggets team official about whether or not the team planned on compensating hourly employees during the NBA’s postponement but was informed that nothing had been decided as of the time this story was published. We will update the story as new information is provided.