Detroit arena, stadium workers go unpaid during COVID-19 crisis

By: - May 19, 2020 11:50 am

Amzie Griffin | Ken Coleman photo

For Amzie Griffin, opening day at a Detroit Tigers baseball game has been as routine as a double play turned by Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, two of the team’s former superstars. That’s because the 85-year-old Detroit resident has worked each one since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

“It’s work that I love to do,” Griffin said.

He first sold popcorn on April 18, 1960, during a Tigers game back at Briggs Stadium. “I made $25 that day — and that was big money for me back then,” Griffin recalls.

But the COVID-19 crisis, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has tried to combat with stay-home orders, ended Griffin’s opening-day streak as a stadium concessions vendor. The home opener would have been on March 30, but it was canceled. So has every game since then. 

Amzie Griffin in 1962 | Amzie Griffin photo

And despite stories about some billionaire owners and millionaire professional players who have offered to pay arena and stadium workers like him during the crisis, Griffin has not received a penny from Delaware North, his employer, or the Ilitch family who own the Detroit Tigers.  

“What about me?” Griffin asks. “What about the guy who is out here working on a 13% commission? If I don’t sell, I don’t get paid. What about the guy who is making $9 per hour?”

A Delaware North spokesman said the company is struggling.

“We understand the hardship this unprecedented situation has caused our dedicated part-time employees in Detroit and more than 50,000 others around the country,” said Glen White, Delaware North director of corporate communications. “Unfortunately, the impact of the crisis on the hospitality industry has been deeper and longer lasting than anticipated, leaving nearly all of Delaware North’s businesses temporarily closed for two months and causing significant financial losses.”

Amzie Griffin | Amzie Griffin photo

The Buffalo, N.Y.-based company operates in more than 200 locations in the United States and as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia. That includes airports, sports and entertainment venues, restaurants, casinos and parks. It operates concessions, dining and retail services at Comerica Park and has been a partner of the Tigers for decades. Similarly, Delaware North has been a food, beverage and retail provider at Little Caesars Arena (LCA) since it opened in 2017.

“We have been forced to place more than two-thirds of our 3,100 full-time employees on temporary leave, and thousands of part-time employees cannot be scheduled for work as a result of the shuttered operations,” White said. “We greatly appreciate all of our employees and hope they remain healthy and safe as we look forward to resuming operations and welcoming them back at the appropriate time.”

Griffin, however, believes that the Ilitch family, who owns the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and the Fox Theatre, should pressure Delaware North, its arena and stadium concession and retail operator at Comerica Park and LCA, to compensate Griffin and his co-workers.

“They need to pay us,” said Griffin, who has worked at Tigers games during their historic 1968 and 1984 world championships, as well as other World Series appearances in 2006 and 2012.  

Amzie Griffin | Amzie Griffin photo

 Karen Coffey, a Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park server who also works for Delaware North, was “devastated” when she learned in mid-March about the COVID-19-related cancelations. Coffey has filed for unemployment but has not received any financial support from her employer.

“I had hope, but we didn’t get anything,” said Coffey, a 62-year-old Oak Park resident. 

She worked at the recently demolished Joe Louis Arena and now LCA for more than 25 years, including the Steve Yzerman-led Detroit Red Wings’ great run where the team won four National Hockey League Stanley Cup titles between 1997 and 2008. 

“No money went to the real workers who are in the concession stands, the vendors. We are the ones who have the real contact with the people on a game-by-game basis. You know, the servers,” Coffey said. “We are the people who make everything work on game day. None of us got taken care of.”

Little Caesars Arena, Detroit | Susan J. Demas

USA Today recently surveyed 91 professional sports teams and found that only about one-third (29) of them had continued compensation plans that included third-party contractors like Griffin and Coffey. A handful of teams said that they have asked third-party vendors to continue paying game-day employees.

Mark Cuban, owner of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Dallas Mavericks, has stated publicly he will continue to pay his game staff for the foreseeable future. He initially indicated that payment would be last for the first 30 days of cancelation, but has since extended the gesture.

“I’ll keep on paying and I’m doing it for not just for the Mavs, but other companies, as well,” Cuban told  KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

But it is not entirely clear whether Cuban is paying concession workers. The Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings, along with Staples Center, established a fund to pay all full-time and part-time workers affected by the NBA and National Hockey League shutdown. 

The $7 million fund, according to a USA Today report, is directed toward full-time employees such as ushers, ticket takers and security personnel, as well as third-party vendors like janitors, parking lot attendants and concession workers.

‘No justice, no pizza’

The billionaire Ilitch family has made considerable investments throughout metro Detroit for decades. 

The clan founded Little Caesars Pizza in 1959 in Garden City and became owners of the Detroit Red Wings in 1982 and the Detroit Tigers in 1992. The family also bought and later refurbished the legendary Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit in 1988. 

Comerica Park, Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Comerica Park is a public-private partnership. The Detroit-Wayne County Stadium Authority, a quasi-government entity, owns the site; Ilitch-owned Olympia Entertainment manages it. Marian Ilitch and her late husband, Mike Illitch, secured public tax assistance to build the stadium, which opened in 2000. 

Similarly, Little Caesars Arena, which opened in 2017, is owned by the city of Detroit. Taxpayers footed the bill for $324 million of its $863 million price tag while the city government was in bankruptcy and a one-third of its residents lived in poverty, according to federal guidelines. Olympia Entertainment, however, manages the venue. 

Mike Ilitch died in 2018. Marian, who also has a controlling interest in Detroit’s MotorCity Casino, has a net worth of $6.8 billion, according to a Bloomberg report.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) has been critical of the Detroit-Ilitch LCA partnership for some time. She has argued that the family has yet to carry out its promises to build affordable housing for low-income residents in the Little Caesars area, which was promised in the development deal. 

In April 2019, she tweeted: “No justice, no pizza! The Little Caesars Arena was built on a foundation of broken promises. It’s about time that our decision makers hold them accountable. The tax giveaways are for decades folks & we gave up too much to stay silent.”

Rashida Tlaib | Andrew Roth

Both LCA and Comerica Park are located in Tlaib’s congressional district.

“Every worker who loses a job or hours because of this pandemic deserves to be compensated so that they can meet their needs and provide for their families,” Tlaib told the Advance on Monday. “I have tirelessly led the fight for recurring payments to every person in America and will continue to push to put money directly into people’s pockets. 

“Detroit stadium and concession workers should be eligible for unemployment like any other workers who have lost income they were counting on, and if the Ilitches are setting up a fund to compensate employees, they should guarantee all their contractors do, as well.”

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the Ilitch family in March set up a $1 million fund to cover one months’ lost wages for its employees only. In addition, the Detroit Tigers, along with the other 29 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams, committed $1 million per team to cover the pay for their part-time seasonal hourly event staff who otherwise would have worked had the season not been postponed, said Brett McWethy, Olympia Entertainment director of marketing and communications.

When asked directly by the Advance whether the Ilitch family has asked Delaware North to compensate its employees like Griffin and Coffey, McWethy would only offer the following statement:

“While we can only speak for ourselves, we recognize it’s a very challenging time for everyone and that many companies have had to make difficult choices regarding their employees. We look forward to welcoming our part-time staff back in a safe and secure manner once permitted by local and state authorities.”

Nia Winston | Nia Winston photo

Nia Winston, Unite Here Local 24 president who represents many of the Detroit arena stadium vendors and concession employees, called responses from the Ilitch family and Delaware North “blame game, back and forth.”

“I’m ashamed and disappointed at Delaware North,” Winston said. “Our workers have helped to rebuild the city, those in the hospitality industry, and it just seems like they have been taken for granted, left behind again.”

Meanwhile, Allen Warren, a vendor at Comerica Park, is currently receiving an unemployment check. He has kept count of the number of baseball games that have been canceled thus far and hopes to resume work soon, as MLB officials are discussing plans. 

Times are tough for the 41-year-old Detroit resident. He can’t afford to get necessary car repairs. Warren calculates that he has lost at least $2,000 by not working the 22 home games the Tigers would have played through May 13. He earns as much as $200 per game between commission and tips.

“I don’t know what the issue is about paying us,” said Warren, who has worked Tigers games for 21 years. “Other teams are doing it. Where’s the money at?” 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.