Mastering Workers' Comp

Knowing the protocol can make the process less painful.

Erica Chipp. Photo by Keith Sutter, Courtesy Smuin.

At first, Smuin Ballet dancer Erica Chipp tried taking care of a painful shin with physical therapy, acupuncture, massage and a chiropractor. “I felt this pain on and off for a while, but I didn’t think it was serious,” she remembers. It turned out she had two stress fractures in her right tibia. “During a run of shows in May, even with my high pain tolerance, I knew something wasn’t right.” Only time off from the company would allow her to heal.  

Most dancers are loath to admit weakness, especially to their teachers and directors. There is a fear of being left behind by their peers, missing out on a role or not having a contract renewed as a result of taking time off to heal. However, reporting an injury and submitting to a treatment plan can often get you back onstage more quickly than if you let an injury linger. Navigating workers’ compensation might seem daunting, but going through the proper channels to receive the care you need can help you remain in good standing with your artistic staff while ensuring you can still get part of your paycheck.  

File a Claim  

True to title, the company manager acts as a liaison between dancers and the artistic staff. Company managers are also in charge of the administration of WC claims, whereby the dancer receives two-thirds of her salary while taking time off to rehabilitate an injury. In nearly any troupe, the company manager’s office is your first stop when you know something is wrong with your body. “Once a dancer comes to me and we discuss injury with artistic staff, I file a WC claim,” says JoEllen Arntz, company manager at Smuin. The dancer is then sent to a WC doctor for an evaluation. “I have a good relationship with the adjustors and follow up to see that dancers are getting good care,” Arntz says.  

WC Ins and Outs  

Once a care plan is decided on, the dancer is given a set amount of doctor and/or physical therapy appointments to attend in lieu of dancing work. Communicating with your company manager and WC doctors during this process is crucial. “Say you get 24 PT appointments. If you exceed that, there will be a WC payment issue,” explains Arntz. Keeping a log of your treatment can help you stay on track with your own care plan so you or your company won’t be left with a large medical bill. Remember that if you enter into a layoff week while you are on WC, you cannot file for unemployment insurance, too.  

WC runs like an insurance company and there may be services it denies because it does not understand the specialized world of professional dance. In that case, you and your company manager may need to petition to show the necessity of a certain treatment option. WC may also refuse claims if the employee was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, not on the job or violating a company policy during the time of injury. Freelance dancers who are considered independent contractors are not eligible. In these cases, it’s still important to be in touch with your company manager about any injury that makes it impossible to do your job.  

Most dancers under a contract, union or nonunion, have job security for the duration, even if an injury occurs. However, when it comes to contract renewals, nothing can be guaranteed. At smaller companies such as Smuin, it can be hard to guarantee a contract will be waiting if the dancer is out for over a year. With larger companies, there is sometimes more leeway to retain a dancer even if injuries last for more than one season.  

While You Were Away  

When you feel you are ready to dance again, your WC doctor will need to approve it first and then forward a medical release to your company, enabling you to return to the regular payroll. Chipp tried to return to Smuin after about two months but it was too early. She received a prescription of three more months to heal before joining the company for The Chirstmas Ballet, Uncorked!  

According to Arntz, the most important thing you can do is take the time you need. “If you are not at 100 percent, it doesn’t benefit anyone,” she advises. Rushing to get back only to find you are not fully healed can cause re-injury and casting confusion all over again. It’s not glamorous, but once the paperwork has been filed and you are on the road to recovery, patience is the best tonic.

Crowdsourcing to the Rescue  

Last winter, Elizabeth Brown slipped in class at Steps on Broadway. As a freelance dancer for New Chamber Ballet, she was not able to file a workers’ compensation claim. Yet her injured foot kept her from rehearsal, performances and her day job as a Pilates teacher. Physical therapy with dance specialists and months of missed work left her in a financial deficit. She built an Indiegogo campaign to raise $3,000. Friends, colleagues and ballet fans helped her reach her goal in two weeks, and now she is back in class.    

Resources for Healing  

The AGMA relief fund can provide financial help to pay for medical and mental health care, in addition to rent, utilities and other living expenses that accrue during an unforeseen emergency or when your medical bills go beyond the bounds of insurance and company resources. Grants are made to AGMA members in good standing on a case-by-case basis. The fund also provides counseling services and workshops. Visit musicalartists.org for your regional office, or for emergencies call 212.621.7780.

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