AEW, Healthcare, and the Sweeping Change Wrestlers Hope Is Coming Next

The new company is already making waves with its labor practices, which could signal what’s coming next

All Elite Wrestling has been vocal about its hope to one day cover all of its professional wrestlers with health insurance, but president Tony Khan told Fanbyte he wants to temper expectations for how quickly that might be.

The new promotion, which is less than a year old and debuted its weekly show AEW:Dynamite on TNT earlier this month, has increasingly been hiring a number of wrestlers on its roster to work additional full-time jobs in Khan’s office in order to qualify them for health benefits under the company’s policy.

Those full-time positions extend beyond AEW executive employees like Brandi and Cody Rhodes, The Young Bucks, Kenny Omega and include jobs in production, creative, talent relations, travel coordination, coaching, and more. Since the promotion was announced earlier this year, multiple AEW executives voiced their hope that coverage plans would be available up and down their roster, but there’s no current idea on how or when the new company will be able to insure every salaried wrestler on its show.

“Not an insurable job”

“No insurance company will cover a professional wrestler,” Khan said. “It’s not an insurable job. You have to have an actual job that you can explain on paper what it is you do full time that isn’t, ‘I wrestled once every other week for eight minutes and I wrestle maybe 30 times a year on average.’ [Insurance companies] aren’t going to accept that.”

A full-time employee is considered someone who works an average of 30 hours per week, under the Affordable Care Act. A more consistent and typical office schedule helps some AEW wrestlers qualify as full-time employees who can receive benefits from the company.

“If I can get somebody in full time, I’m going to find a way to do that,” Khan said. “A lot of men and women have full time employment here because of their involvement with the day-to-day operation of the company in addition to performing in on-screen roles.”

In an interview with The New York Times late this summer, Kia Stevens— who wrestles in AEW as “Awesome Kong” and now receives company health care through her additional role as a coach— told me the cost for an independent wrestler to get their own health insurance is like “maintaining another household.” Former WWE wrestler Nick Dinsmore, who has worked as an independently contracted wrestler since 1996, told Fanbyte that employee-offered health insurance policies in the pro wrestling industry are “nonexistent.”

“It would be good, but in independent wrestling who’s going to pay it?” said Dinsmore, who now owns Midwest All Pro Wrestling. “Is it going to be the company that runs the show? If that’s the case, then all the independent promotions are going to dry up. There’s very little money in independent wrestling. Nobody’s making money.”

Dinsmore now has his own health coverage, but classifies his job as a “coach” rather than a “pro wrestler” because he, like many other wrestlers, fear companies will deny them because of their profession’s danger and their high risk of injury. Though it is illegal for an insurance company in the United States to deny coverage based on profession or industry, under the Affordable Care Act.

“Nor can they deny coverage to someone based on their health status or potential risk of injury,” said Sabrina Corlette, a research professor at Georgetown’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms. “That said, it is true that if your employer doesn’t pitch in, and you do not qualify for the ACA’s premium tax credits, then insurance can be very expensive.”

Wrestlers and fans alike have been hopeful that AEW, who has a billion-dollar backer in the Khan family and has shown some progressive stances on labor practices within the wrestling industry, will bring sweeping industry change. AEW executives say that change would be gradual.

“The first thing we can do is (improve wrestlers’) income and schedule,” said Cody Rhodes, an on-screen wrestler and full-time company executive in the company. “I think we’re a little bit ahead of where I thought we would be in getting this all done and it’s really nice to know you have a clean and healthy company.”

Khan says a “large percentage” of the AEW roster is insured through the company. Some on the roster have other full-time jobs through which they receive health benefits, such as Britt Baker, who works as a dentist.

AEW runs one show per week (Wednesday night’s two-hour program, Dynamite), which allows its non full-time wrestlers to be at home the rest of the week and avoids constant travel schedules. WWE wrestlers and many independent wrestlers are responsible for their own travel from show to show each night.

“I don’t think anybody’s ever taken better care of the wrestlers than we have in our doing.”

Company executives also say AEW has already raised the pay floor for professional wrestlers across the board. One AEW executive told Fanbyte the low-end salary it offers its wrestlers is higher than the base-level contracts that wrestlers in NXT receive, which is believed to be about $50,000 per year, according to multiple industry professionals spoken to for this story.

Both AEW and the WWE similarly cover medical and rehabilitation costs related to in-ring injuries. “If anybody gets hurt on my dime, I’m taking care of it,” said Khan, who also said he pays for wrestlers’ travel expenses each week. “I don’t think anybody’s ever taken better care of the wrestlers than we have in our doing.”

The WWE, which has billion-dollar backers of its own in the McMahon family, fell under fire earlier this year after HBO’s John Oliver ran a 23-minute segment on Last Week Tonight which heavily criticized the industry’s lack of healthcare coverage and, more specifically, the poor labor practices held by the WWE.

“We are people, we have struggles, and there’s somebody in this business that’s become a billionaire off the backs of our labor.”

One solution wrestlers have discussed for decades behind the scenes is unionizing. David Starr, an independent wrestler who’s behind ongoing organization efforts in the UK, said although those conversations have happened before, they “usually get shut down by somebody at the top” of a major company.

“There’s this idea that we have to carry ourselves like superstars and we have to act like we’re always taken care of, but that’s nonsense,” Starr said. “It’s a big trick. We are people, we have struggles, and there’s somebody in this business that’s become a billionaire off the backs of our labor.”

Dinsmore says he still has two bicep tears he originally suffered in 2011 when he didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. The 42-year-old still wrestles upwards of twice a month and says it hurts to do simple daily things like taking a shower or picking up a grocery bag. An independent wrestlers’ labor union, Dinsmore says, could help guarantee pensions and other financial securities for aging or retired wrestlers— many who wrestle into their 60s and 70s because they need to continue working to afford bills, medical or otherwise.

Multiple wrestlers interviewed for this story, including Starr and Dinsmore, said pro wrestlers could benefit from a union like players in the NFL or other major sports leagues which could help negotiate things like fair labor practices, industry standard employment rates, and employment benefits. Rhodes alluded to a wrestlers’ union himself last year, tweeting that wrestlers “need to band together.”

The hope among independently contracted wrestlers is that the more promotions like AEW start to offer performers benefits and the more wrestlers speak up about employment issues, the more labor practices will improve across the industry. In the meantime, AEW executives believe they’re starting to create a better blueprint for how promotions should operate.

“I’m doing the best I can,” Khan said. “I think the quality of life for a wrestler is better now than it was at the beginning of this year as a result of (AEW) and the market that it’s created.”

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Sean Neumann

Sean Neumann is a journalist based out of Chicago, Ill. His writing on professional wrestling has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, ESPN, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and more. Follow him on Twitter @neumannthehuman

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