Thousands of stadium workers not covered by pledges of financial support from athletes, teams

The absence of sports' effect on stadium workers in Philadelphia (3:56)

John Barr examines the effect that the shutdown of professional sports due to the coronavirus pandemic is having on stadium employees in Philadelphia. (3:56)

PHILADELPHIA -- Marvin Spratley has been a grill cook for nearly two years, working concession stands during the home games for Philadelphia's Flyers, 76ers and Eagles.

Spratley, 37, says the $14-per-hour pay was barely enough to support his three children, including a 7-month-old daughter with sickle cell anemia. When professional sports leagues suspended play last month due to the coronavirus pandemic, Spratley stopped working. He says he made up for roughly half of his missing wages from unemployment benefits and expects to receive federal stimulus money. But he says it won't be enough to make ends meet.

"My stress level has gone through the roof, and I'm not even a stressful person, but lately it's getting to me," Spratley says. "Bills piling up. It's enough to make you go crazy."

The managing partner of the Philadelphia 76ers, Josh Harris, recently joined owners, managers and athletes from across leagues who have pledged financial support for team and stadium staffers sidelined by the pandemic. The 76ers agreed to pay about 350 full- and part-time employees who work game days for the games they missed due to the crisis. Comcast Spectacor, the company that owns the Wells Fargo Center and the Flyers, paid about 1,000 game-day employees through April 15. The Philadelphia Phillies, like the other 29 Major League Baseball teams, set aside $1 million to assist hourly ballpark employees who are also missing paychecks.

But those gestures don't extend to people such as Spratley, who -- rather than working directly for a team or a stadium -- is employed by Philadelphia-based Aramark, which has contracts with Philadelphia's teams to provide concessions during home games. So Spratley and his peers at third-party contractors nationwide are joining the ranks of more than 22 million people who have filed for unemployment since the crisis began.

About 2,500 Aramark concession workers staff the three stadiums in south Philadelphia alone, according to Rosslyn Wuchinich, president of UNITE HERE Local 274, the union representing workers such as Spratley.

Many of those concession staffers work year-round at events across venues in Philadelphia after a 2016 collective bargaining agreement with Aramark allowed them to work at more than one stadium -- meaning the pay they received from that work is often their sole source of income.

"Some people think this is like pocket change or work for folks in high school or college. It's not. These are people supporting families on this income," Wuchinich says, adding, "This crisis is a deep, deep financial crisis for low-wage workers."

Across the country, a number of professional teams have taken steps to include workers employed by third-party vendors in aid packages extended to their own employees.

  • In New York City, 625 workers at Barclays Center who work for the Chicago-based food services company Levy will get paid by the team and arena for missed Brooklyn Nets games, according to a spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 100, the union representing those Levy employees.

  • In Chicago, 792 Levy concession workers at the United Center will be paid for 14 Bulls and Blackhawks home games that have been postponed. Additionally, about 1,060 concessions workers at the Cubs' Wrigley Field and Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, could qualify to apply for non-taxable assistance grants of $500 if teams determine they're eligible, according to Sarah Lyons, a spokesperson for UNITE HERE Local 1.

  • In Los Angeles, the roughly 500 workers who staff Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers and Los Angeles Kings games will be compensated by those teams until the end of the season, according to the teams and a union spokesperson. The union posted a petition asking the Dodgers and Angels to also extend support to contract workers.

The San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox have also agreed to provide financial support to contract workers, according to a union spokesperson. Wuchinich's union is pushing Philadelphia sports teams to continue to pay Aramark so that the company can extend financial support to and provide health insurance for those contract workers, following the moves made in other cities.

Comcast Spectacor, the company that owns the Wells Fargo Center and the Flyers, declined to comment on the union's petition, as did the 76ers and Phillies. The Eagles did not respond to a request for comment.

In a statement to ESPN, an Aramark spokesman said: "We recognize these closures are creating significant personal hardships, especially for our dedicated hourly associates. As we navigate this incredibly challenging situation, we continue to work closely with our team partners, the union and government entities to lessen the impact on our associates."

Some workers fear that the return of sports doesn't necessarily mean a return to work. Last week, the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the only way sports return this summer is by holding events without fans and by testing and keeping players in hotels, which means it's possible that even those stadium workers now covered by team pledges of financial support could eventually join those employed by third-party contractors in the unemployment ranks.

Adelaide Avila, 52, is in her 15th season at Los Angeles' Staples Center, where she works as a cashier on the VIP floor. She told ESPN that "it was a huge relief off a lot of workers' shoulders" when she found out the Lakers, Clippers and Kings would support her and other concession workers, even though she works for Levy. She says the paycheck received in early April was about half of what she normally receives.

"The season ends [this week], so, we're going to get a check this Friday [April 17], and beyond that, we're not sure we're going to be compensated," Avila says. "Hypothetically, if they play without fans, we still won't be working."

In Chicago, Tawanda Murray, 45, was managing her concession stand at the United Center during a Blackhawks game on March 11 when she and her colleagues heard that the NBA season was going to be suspended indefinitely. A day later, when the NHL announced its season would also be put on hold, Murray filed for unemployment.

"My worst fear is the start-up of [sports] coming back if people are not attending games. When attendance is low, companies tend to cut back," says Murray, who says she takes at least some comfort in knowing that her health-care benefits, which she gets through her local union, will remain in place until the end of August.

Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, estimated that, if the NBA and NHL seasons don't resume, the arena workers employed both by teams and third-party contractors would lose $69 million total in earnings.

If 25% of the MLB season isn't played, stadium workers could lose $151 million total in earnings -- a number that could double if the league doesn't play half its games, according to Rishe's calculations, which are based on average staffing and wage estimates. Rishe said his calculations don't take into account the financial relief some teams have pledged.

Levy, which has the largest market share of food and beverage contracts in the United States, with 45% of the arenas, said in a statement to ESPN that it's implementing furloughs, salary adjustments and "limited workforce reductions."

Delaware North, one of Levy's largest competitors, took similar steps last month. The company placed more than two-thirds of the company's 3,100 full-time employees on temporary leave, according to a statement provided to ESPN. Delaware North has 55,000 employees working in sports venues, the travel and hospitality business, parks, resorts and casinos. The company did not respond to a request for more information about how many of those workers are impacted directly by the postponement of professional sports.

In an interview from his northwest Philadelphia home, Spratley says he is a diabetic and mindful of the impact COVID-19 can have on those with preexisting conditions. "I'm trying to stay here for my kids. That's why I'm staying indoors right now, but I do need to go provide for my family," he says.

"Many of the people that are unfortunately at the highest risk of infection right now are people who earn the least because they're taking risks just to survive financially," says Wuchinich.

Spratley says his fiancée works part-time for a grocery-delivery service, a job that in the current social-distancing environment is not without its own risks.

"I just hope for better days, pray for better days," Spratley says.

John Barr is a reporter in ESPN's investigative unit. ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.