For many, the idea of working on Broadway is a Technicolor dream. Even knowing the rigors of rehearsals, it's a fantasy job filled with gorgeous costumes, impeccable spotlight cues, Stephen Sondheim songs, curtain calls and standing ovations.

For others, Broadway is a reality that demands a familiarity with copious disinfectants, sorting through box office snafus, herding large groups of tourists, and cleaning up vomit and other expulsions.

Broadway’s custodians, elevator operators and restroom attendants are the unsung workers of the Great White Way. They are the people who keep venues running behind the scenes, so that shows can flourish in front of millions of people.

Since theaters reopened last fall with rigorous new COVID safety protocols in place, their jobs have only become more stressful and demanding. Many are now locked in a contract negotiation battle with several major theater companies after their contracts, which expired in 2020, were extended because of the pandemic.

Because of that delay, these theater attendants and cleaners haven't received any wage increases in over three years, despite the heightened precautions prompted by COVID.

"We just want respect for what we do," said Lorraine Feeks, 51, who has worked on Broadway with Jujamcyn Theaters for 29 years. "Without the cleaners, they can't bring people into a dirty, messy theater. If we don't do what we do, the show can't go on."

Martha Aristizabal

About 230 cleaners from four companies — Jujamcyn, Nederlander, Shubert and Circle in the Square, which collectively manage 16 Broadway theaters — are being represented by Local 32BJ in the contract negotiation. The last four-year agreement was bargained in 2016, and the current one — which was extended twice during the pandemic — will end on June 26th.

“The critical role Broadway theater cleaners play in creating a safe and clean environment for theatergoers has become even more essential during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Denis Johnston, executive vice president of 32BJ SEIU. "Since the onset of the pandemic, Broadway cleaners have had a heightened responsibility, along with their regular duties, to keep theaters clean and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus."

The Broadway League, the trade organization that represents theater owners and operators, did not respond to emails for comment.

Workers say that between the uncertainty around COVID and the rising cost of living due to inflation, it is vital that they get some recognition for what they describe as their invisible labor. In addition to wage increases, they're also asking to improve their retirement funds and maintain 100% employer-paid healthcare coverage with no premium sharing.

"We've realized over the pandemic [our health care] is not something that is negotiable, we need to be able to rely on our health insurance to take care of us when we need it," Martha Aristizabal, who has worked for the Shubert company for over 12 years, said in Spanish via a translator. "We know the economic situation in this country is not great for theaters, but also inflation has made our take-home wages not sustainable."

Aristizabal, 56, who spoke to Gothamist from a closet inside the Ambassador Theater while on a work break, went on unemployment in 2020 when the theaters shut down to curtail the spread of COVID-19. She supplemented her benefits by delivering groceries for Amazon a few days a week.

Since the Ambassador resumed performances of "Chicago" in August 2021, Aristizabal has been working two shifts, making $20 an hour. In the mornings she works as a custodian, cleaning backstage spaces and hallways. In the evenings she acts as a manager's assistant, helping people to their seats and the bathrooms, and making sure they have their masks on.

She credited theater management for giving employees plenty of training on COVID protocols, which are still in use today. But she said she still encounters hundreds of theatergoers a day, and it has been "challenging" to make sure people wear their masks throughout the shows.

"We live in a constant fear, because the pandemic isn't over for us," she said. "We go into work everyday and see people getting sick: not just in the outside world, also our coworkers. And the company does a good job of informing us when people get sick and making sure that they isolate, but it's a constant fear that we live in. So that's why we need wage increases that reflect the kind of stress and anxiety we live in day-to-day."

Lorraine Feeks

While Aristizabal is able to work two shifts at the same theater, not everyone is so lucky.

Feeks, who has been employed by the Jujamcyn company for almost three decades, currently works mornings as the head cleaner at the August Wilson Theater, which is showing the current revival of "Funny Girl." Among other things, she helps clean and vacuum the orchestra and mezzanine sections, picks up confetti from all over the theater, and cleans the ladies room and box office, for which she makes $21 per hour.

Then in the evening, she is a ticket-taker at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where she gets paid per show. She sometimes doesn't get to sleep until around midnight, then wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to start her next shift.

Another cleaner, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal by her employer, has a similarly taxing schedule. She has worked on Broadway since 2009, and in the mornings is a head cleaner for one of the venues operated by the Nederlander Organization, where she cleans dressing rooms, seating areas, the box office and communal restrooms, and deals with scheduling issues for other workers.

At night, she works as an usher at a different theater, an arrangement that she said is becoming increasingly common for Broadway cleaners.

"They're not allowing us to do two jobs within the same company," she said. "So that's a little difficult for some people, but it's necessary. We do need to work two jobs in order to survive, especially in New York."

She said that her job as an usher is "a little more scary" because of the sheer volume of people she's around, but she is happy with how the theaters have maintained their COVID protocols and communicated well about safety measures, despite so many other industries dropping all pandemic precautions.

Even so, that doesn't mean she isn't vulnerable to getting sick.

"I actually caught COVID in December," she said. "I don't blame it on ushering, to be honest, because none of the ushers that I was around had COVID. But the actors had COVID. So I'm assuming I had gotten it from the actors, from cleaning their rooms."

Milagros Vargas

Milagros Vargas, 72, has been working at various Shubert Organization theaters for nearly 40 years. She currently makes $20 an hour as a custodian in the mornings and as a customer liaison in the evenings. She generally works between 40 and 48 hours a week.

Vargas collects a pension and social security, but cannot afford to retire, which is why improving wages and the retirement fund is so important to her.

"I want people to know that we work really, really hard in the mornings to make sure the theaters are clean," she said in Spanish via a translator. "There are constant viruses, COVID isn't the only one, and we work really hard to make sure the spaces are hygienic for other people."

Aristizabal, her fellow Shubert employee, echoed Vargas's words. Many theatergoers may overlook them, she said, but Broadway cleaners are holding the entire industry together.

"It's important that people recognize the kind of daily sacrifice we make to make sure the show is running," she said through a translator. "The show I'm working on now, the shows are often packed with audience members. And we want a wage package that reflects the respect for the work that we do and what we've done to make sure these theaters keep running."