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Vegas gig worker says system ‘doesn’t make sense’

Updated May 24, 2020 - 11:21 am

The crisscrossing roads of COVID-19 keep leading back to Megan Belk.

You might not know Belk. You won’t find her image on a taxi top or Las Vegas Strip resort marquee. But for 25 years, she and her family have touched the Las Vegas entertainment community in myriad ways. Chiefly, her Music By Belk production and management company furnishes performers and performances for venues and conventions all over the city.

These are bands, such as The A List, you might hear at Toshiba Square as you enter T-Mobile Arena for a Vegas Golden Knights game or George Strait show. Or, you might hear a Belk-booked performance inside Moneyline at Park MGM, The Lounge at ExCal, and several Station Casinos hotel-casinos.

Before she arrived in town, Belk was a singer and backup dancer in “Legends In Concert” on Premier Cruise Line. She met the man she would marry, Jim Belk, during those tours. Jim was the drummer and music director for the band that played for all the Premier shows.

The two moved to Las Vegas in 1995, as the city was the “Legends” hub.

Jim was a force on the Vegas entertainment scene, performing in “Mamma Mia!” at Mandalay Bay, “The Producers” at Paris Las Vegas, “Avenue Q” at Wynn Las Vegas and “We Will Rock You,” also at Paris. In that show, Jim shared MD duties with none other than The Composers Showcase co-founder Keith Thompson. The pairing of rocker and musical-theater buff worked magic on the Strip.

Jim’s final show was “Million Dollar Quartet” at Harrah’s in the spring of 2013. Shortly after the show opened, the man fondly known as “Belky” developed a rare form of cancer. His passing in September 2013 at age 47 shook our city’s entertainment community. “MDQ” paid homage to the master musician by hanging a photo of him in the sound booth inside the show’s Sun Records set.

Megan Belk has continued to work across the city. Recently she showed off her singing chops in her brother Todd Hart’s Voices Las Vegas singing ensemble (the troupe’s clips are on Hart’s website). When the Vegas engine is running, I often catch Belk while she’s wearing a headset near a stage. I occasionally receive random texts, “Hey, The A List is playing outside tonight at The Park!”

Megan can recognize and even produce a Cool Hang. She can also spot a show that isn’t ready for prime time.

Which brings us to the DETR Lounge, a production of the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. Because of her skills in dealing with showbiz bureaucracy, Belk has been at the wheel for many contracted, or “gig” performers and entertainment workers in the city who are trying to navigate that site.

The gig workers, or “1099s” in another moniker, have been waiting since late March to apply for unemployment assistance.

These folks have no full-time employer. They are classic showbiz mercenaries, chasing the next paycheck.

Belk is in that group. Gig workers were given the go-ahead to apply for assistance last week. She has spent much of that time chiseling her way into the website. She concurrently posts updates on her Facebook page, offering advice to those going through the same stressful process.

After the site was stalled Saturday for two hours, Belk finally cracked the code and entered her information.

“I’m not an expert, that’s my qualifier,” she says. “I’m working through this and just sharing what I have learned.”

It’s easy to point out the website’s inadequacies in the face of such a volume of suddenly jobless entertainment professionals. However, by opting to work as contracted professionals, gig workers don’t pay unemployment insurance taxes. The system isn’t built for them. It’s a nuanced issue, and Belk knows it.

“The self-employed don’t get unemployment insurance, and in fact it is not called ‘unemployment insurance,’ it’s ‘unemployment assistance,’” she says. “So, when you get upset and start demanding this and that, you need to feel lucky that they are including us at all — and they should, because of the situation.”

Largely through trial and error, Belk has found the right process to enter a gig worker’s hours and pay. They can make between $181 and $469 a week through the state, along with the flat rate of $600 from the federal government’s CARES Act.

Fair money, except contracted workers have been on deck for two months, waiting to be let into the website. The system is geared toward full-time workers, not the sort of entertainer who plays Rocks Lounge at Red Rock on Thursday, Hank’s at Green Valley Ranch on Friday and the Italian American Club Showroom on Saturday.

“It’s a very confusing process, and it doesn’t have anything to do with anyone’s intelligence,” Belk says. “We truly are per-project gig workers. We have many employers, as far as who are paying us. So it doesn’t make sense or fit what we do.”

An example is the DETR entry asking for an individual’s employer. Gig workers have been errantly entering, say, their most frequent gig. Don’t do that. Enter N/A, or “self,” because that entry is for W-2 filers, Belk says.

“What is really frustrating is how long it’s taken to release these funds to the gig workers,” Belk says. “They’ve known since the CARES Act was signed at the end of March that we were going to have these issues.”

Belk has socked enough away through a strong fourth quarter of 2019 and first quarter this year. She has been staying at home with her daughters, who have inherited their parents’ zeal for the arts. Andress, at 18, has graduated from Las Vegas Academy almost a year to the day and is enrolled at the private arts university Pratt Institute in New York City. Seventeen-year-old Eliza just finished 11th grade at LVA.

Living a show-business life most of her life has given Belk perspective on how to cope with upheaval.

“I just say to be patient, stay calm,” Belk says. “A lot of this is out of our control. That’s what is most frustrating. People are fearful and understandably so, but we are all in the same situation. We have each other. We always have.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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