April 6 - April 12, 1995

Cowboy Complaints

Life Was Tough In The Old West, And Some Former Workers Say It Was Tough At Old Tucson, Too.

By J.E. Relly

DAVID KANTNER PULLED a shock of blond hair away from his scalp revealing more than 100 staples. In his trailer living room one month after his second brain surgery, he and his wife Becky recounted the string of events that took him from an acting and stunt performing career at Old Tucson Studios into a life of unemployment and food stamps. If Kantner hadn't been one of the few entertainers with Old Tucson's company insurance plan, he'd now be stuck with $100,000-plus in medical bills.

Kantner described himself as an Old Tucson "company man." He stayed on with the company when the rest of the entertainment staff walked in '89, due to a wage and benefit dispute. Just months prior to the walkout, Kantner was performing a shotgun reaction in a gunfight--a scene he had done hundreds of times before. But that time his head struck the ground. He filed a report for Worker's Compensation the day of his head injury. The case was eventually closed.

Meanwhile Kantner went months with chronic headaches, memory lapses, depression and a drifting eye from a blown pupil. The Kantners applied to reopen the case with Worker's Comp but the request was denied. As a result the case was heard before the Arizona Industrial Commission. Compensation and medical care were denied, with the exception of the partial paralysis of his right eye caused by the injury.

Between recoveries, Kantner returned to Old Tucson and worked as a drama coach and a lead. In '92, his slurred speech and slowed motor skills forced him into disability leave. He spent an intense year in rehab that ended with his counselors and physician persuading him to return to part-time acting.

Kantner says Dan Aylward, Old Tucson's general manager at the time, told him he couldn't allow him back in his old position.

Last July, when Kantner went back to his old stomping ground, he says Old Tucson management scheduled him to work more hours than his doctor approved. He says he was placed in 110-degree heat at the front gate collecting tickets and greeting newcomers. At first he wasn't permitted water, he says.

Old Tucson public relations manager Roberta Lopez-Suter responded that the company follows all physician's restrictions on employees. "Water is available throughout the park to employees, and they are permitted, and encouraged, to drink water, especially when working outdoors."

In a letter faxed to The Weekly, Aylward, now at Silverwood Theme Park in Idaho, replied Old Tucson employees returning from illness or injury frequently went to "light duty" positions at their old pay rate. As openings occurred in their old area, they could petition for placement.

Nonetheless, Kantner lasted for less than a month, leaving his ticket-taking position after eight years with the company.

FORMER OLD TUCSON entertainers say work conditions changed drastically when Dan Aylward was hired as general manager in '89. They say Old Tucson management then began paying more attention to its profit margin, cutting company empathy to the bone. They insist the $5-something-an-hour starting pay scarcely covered their bills, much less leaving money for the company insurance premiums that could protect them when they were injured.

Old Tucson Studios protects its assets by providing Worker's Comp to employees. State law leaves employers open to liability if they hire without providing this minimum. Although Worker's Comp covers employees' visits to an occupational health center, it doesn't cover days missed due to injury. That is, unless the disability extends beyond seven days.

Former stuntworkers say not only is Old Tucson skimpy on covering its employees injuries, the wages for high-risk stunts are nowhere near what the National Stunt Association might recommend. Those guidelines, consistent with the Screen Actors Guild, begin at $504 per day. Todd Cuson, a former Old Tucson stunt performer, calculated pay for one high fall at just a few cents, or some $45 for a work day.

Another reoccurring concern among former stunt performers (Old Tucson has a company rule against staff talking to the press without permission) is safety. They speak as if quality assurance is nonexistent in monitoring stunt sites and equipment. They say training is inadequate.

Former stunt workers say upper management gave lip service to safety but instituted no written standards or time for a safety checklist.

Joe King, a UA architecture student, says he tore his wrist ligaments his first night performing. Later he suffered whiplash from a fight scene and the required 30-foot fall. He said he blew out his knee and shoulder on a minitramp stunt. Less than a month after working there, King signed off on a letter sent around by a majority of the entertainment department. The letter, sent to Old Tucson management, complained about risky work conditions and lack of training. The complaint also was forwarded to the Industrial Commission of Arizona (a division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the Arizona Labor Department.

The staff complained that bad working conditions weren't corrected until actors were injured.

Out of the eight complaints in the employees' letter, state OSHA officials cited Old Tucson for one: unsafe pyrotechnic storage and no permit for manufacturing explosive devices. The Arizona Industrial Commission's citation of December '92 stated black powder was stored in the same magazine with fuse igniters.

Old Tucson public relations manager Lopez-Suter responded that special-effect materials are made in-house. The company contends they have a federal permit for such and adhere to the safety standards.

But a former lead says bombs were made in-house by taking two shotgun shells of powder and wrapping them in plastic wrap with a rocket igniter compressed by layers of duct tape. She says the worst part of the job was triggering the explosions on rainy days, recalling an employee who was shocked trying to set up wiring for his bomb out in front of the Mexican Plaza. "He was following directions. The problem was he had wet socks because it was raining.

"He was flat on his back until the ambulance came."

Several former employees who made bombs for the shows say despite the company rule of not smoking in the area, staff still smoked. They say they felt downright unsafe.

Much like the low-budget operation with the bombs, Old Tucson has each gunfighter care for his own guns. Former Old Tucson actor Steve Hayes says he was in a gunfight where three fighters walked out, drew their pistols and fell down.

"I grabbed my gun, cocked it back and it fired (in the holster)," says Hayes. "I fell down like everyone. Nobody noticed. My leg really stung, but I didn't think it was a big deal until my pants started smoking and caught on fire."

Hayes suffered first-degree burns from the injury along with embedded gun powder that later was removed from his leg. He says the training for gun maintenance at Old Tucson was mediocre, and because the guns took such abuse, they should have been replaced more often.

Former employees also had been concerned about aging high-fall bags that no longer supported the stunt performer's weight. Hayes says he found a carpet razor in one of the bags when he was fluffing it during a stunt prep. Another former stunt performer found a metal rod used to reinforce masonry walls. Former employees say they were encouraged to prep their own stunt site, but rarely given the time needed.

After four years at Old Tucson, Louise Wilson left her position as an acting lead, she says, because management wouldn't improve work conditions. She claims management consistently said her safety concerns were "her opinion."

When Old Tucson stunt staff wrote a letter to the Arizona Industrial Commission stating rushed training caused frequent injuries, the commission bought the company line: A 90-day probationary training period is required for stunt personnel before they're allowed to perform in stunts. Former entertainers interviewed by The Weekly disagreed. They say they were performing in front of an audience before the 90-day training period ended.

Old Tucson public relations manager Lopez-Suter says the company has a standard training procedure for actors. "Old Tucson also has an excellent safety rating in the industry. This rating cannot be earned without having a proven track record for following established guidelines."

Former general manager Aylward agreed, saying numerous safety programs were implemented and thousands of dollars spent on new, safer equipment. Any deficiencies were immediately addressed and corrected, he claimed.

Several former Old Tucson employees also say management eased them off the schedule without telling them they were formally fired or laid off.

Former Old Tucson actor Richard Ivey filed a complaint against the company for unfair labor practices. The complaint, backed by the National Labor Relations Board, referenced Ivey's involvement in submitting a memo to the management expressing concerns and suggestions for work and safety conditions. Ivey's 18-page handwritten complaint says the general manager at the time, Dan Aylward, threatened to reduce employee hours for engaging in the group effort. One month later, Ivey was left off the work schedule.

In October '93, Ivey, the father of two children, accepted a $1,400 settlement from Old Tucson Company releasing them from any liability, claim or damage relating to the job termination.

Other former employees with work-related concerns say they can't afford to tangle with the corporate entity's high-powered law team. They work for the acting experience for their resume and then leave.

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April 6 - April 12, 1995

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