MSG workers bracing for lost wages

There's a family man from the outer boroughs who works game nights at Madison Square Garden. If he had his way, he'd be getting on the subway Wednesday evening to head to 2 Penn Plaza.

Once there, he'd start preparing the World's Most Famous Arena for the New York Knicks' home opener against the Miami Heat.

"I try to be courteous to everyone," he says of his nightly approach to his job.

He won't have the opportunity on Wednesday, or on any Knicks game night in the near future.

The NBA is in its 125th day of a labor dispute that has, so far, caused the cancellation of 15 Knicks games -- with many more likely to come. Fans are losing out, missing the chance to watch their favorite NBA teams and players on the heels of one of the most popular seasons in league history.

But the collateral damage spreads wider than that.

While NBA owners and players argue over how to split up $4.3 billion in revenue, arena workers must figure out how to compensate for lost checks. Each canceled Knicks game can mean anywhere from $75 to $250 in missed income for some game-night staffers, according to the Madison Square Garden workers interviewed for this story.

"Players are thinking about the players and the owners are thinking about the owners, but no one is really thinking about us," says the family man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of putting his job in jeopardy.

"At the end of the day it's about money," he says. "They're fighting about millions and billions, but I'm trying to support myself and I'm trying to support my kids."

Not all Madison Square Garden workers share his concerns. Many, who also wished to remain anonymous, are confident that any canceled Knicks home games will be filled by concerts and other events.

"If it was Newark or somewhere else, I'd be worried. But this is the Garden," one employee said earlier this month while taking a break during a Rangers home game.

MSG, which declined comment for this story, has scheduled a Jay-Z/Kanye West concert for next Tuesday, the same night Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder were supposed to play the Garden.

But can arena executives fill in all 41 home dates on short notice if the entire season is canceled? Juan Galan doesn't think so.

Galan is the lead organizer for Unite Here Local 100. His union represents food service workers, 700 of whom are employed at the arena.

Galan fields daily calls from workers concerned over lost wages due to the lockout. Some of those workers, according to Galan, will also be in danger of working fewer than 900 hours for the year, a requirement to qualify for medical benefits.

"It's a tough situation all around," Galan says. "We're talking about key events that normally happen every year and are not going to happen because of these quote-unquote negotiations. It's sad. It's really sad."

There are around 400 events annually at Madison Square Garden (both arena and theater), so a few missed basketball games may not seem significant.

But, Galan says, workers will have a difficult time making up for those wages this year, in particular, because the Garden was closed over the summer for renovation. The renovation is scheduled for the summer of 2012 as well.

"Unfortunately the little guy is overlooked," says Galan, who estimates that laborers would each lose roughly 270 hours worked if the season is canceled. "I think a little bit more thought could be given to how this negotiation is affecting [arena employees'] lives. Yes, they're arguing over millions and billions, but it's also affecting people's ability to pay rent."

And their ability to pay college tuition.

One Garden worker who uses his nightly wage to help pay for college tuition and books is concerned that the money he loses during the lockout will hinder his ability to cover educational costs.

"It [will make] my situation very difficult," he says, adding that he is just one of many facing the same predicament.

So far, eight Knicks home games (preseason and regular season) have been lost due to the lockout. Depending on when and if players and owners can reach a new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA can rework its schedule to include games before Dec. 1, the earliest date they are currently scheduled.

So there is optimism among some Garden workers that they could avoid further fallout from the lockout.

"I don't think it will affect us," one worker said on her way out of the Garden after a recent Rangers home game.

That optimism is buoyed by James Dolan. The Knicks owner and MSG executive chairman is among a group of owners eager to work out a deal, according to Billy Hunter, head of the NBA players' association. With the Knicks coming off their first playoff appearance in eight years, there are plenty around the Garden who share Dolan's enthusiasm.

Galan is one of them. But his passion to see basketball return to the Garden has little to do with Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. He's more concerned about the beer vendors, concession stand workers and dishwashers represented by his union who have been largely ignored during negotiations.

"I hope the next time [players and owners] go to the table, when they're bargaining over their billions, they actually take a hard look at the workers who work to make their events so successful," he says.

"Whether it's the vendor that pours your beer or the concession worker that sells you a hot dog or the suite attendant that gives the top-level client a good sale, they are the backbone of the experience.

"So when they're bargaining, they need to take into account how it affects other people's lives. Hopefully next time, they'll be a little bit more conscientious with their decisions."