Exclusive: Burning Man, a utopia for guests, was hell for many workers

Staggeringly high suicide rate among Burning Man's seasonal workers is just one symptom of a toxic work environment

Published August 24, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Burning Man participants compete in the swimming leg of the annual Black Rock City triathlon at the Burning Man festival. (AP/Brad Horn)
Burning Man participants compete in the swimming leg of the annual Black Rock City triathlon at the Burning Man festival. (AP/Brad Horn)

Every summer at the end of August, thousands of people from around the world make their pilgrimage to Burning Man, the signal counterculture festival of our epoch. Some come for a spiritual awakening, some merely to party and indulge, others to gawk at the spectacle. What started as a small summer-solstice gathering on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 has been refashioned as a major event drawing more than 75,000 festival-goers to the Black Rock Desert, a remote plateau desert two hours north of Reno, Nevada.

Describing Burning Man to someone who has never been is an exercise in superlatives. Given its freeform, anarchic nature, it is to some extent what you make of it, and it has a different meaning to different people. Some regard it as the provenance of obnoxious trust-funders and rich techies; others, as the terminus of 1960s-era hippiedom. At a minimum, Burning Man resembles a more libertine Coachella, a giant drug-driven wardrobe malfunction bursting with alternate theories of don’t-tread-on-me hedonism and solipsistic schemes for freer living.

There is general agreement that Burning Man symbolizes and perhaps even carries on the legacy of the socially libertarian spirit of the 1960s counterculture. Not surprisingly, attendees often describe the experience as transcendent; in recent years it has become popular with well-heeled techies, who have been credited with shifting the festival’s demographic and culture.

Despite its transgressive spirit, the festival is expensive and increasingly off-limits to the underclass: Tickets run from $190 to $1,200 this year, while transportation to and fro and equipment add to the cost. Those who attend are expected to obey the organization’s “10 Principles of Burning Man,” which includes “radical self-reliance” — meaning attendees have to provide their own food, water and shelter for the week-long party.

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Over the years, the festival has attracted its share of celebrity fans, some of them unlikely: Grover Norquist, the anti-tax icon, attends regularly, as do many of Silicon Valley’s elite, including Elon Musk and much of the Google brass, along with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos. Burning Man’s remote desert location allows for unique experiences that one couldn’t replicate in other settings — in particular, the ritualistic burning of a giant human-shaped effigy at the end of the festival, from which it derives its name. It also means barbarous conditions for the seasonal workers who are tasked with constructing the grid upon which the festival operates.

Preparing an inhospitable desert landscape for the equally brief and boggling surge in population that temporarily creates what is known as Black Rock City  requires a coordinated effort of labor, workers and volunteers who toil in harsh conditions, often for low pay or no pay, for months on end: running electric lines, hauling equipment, cleaning up the mess at the end of it all, and dealing with the logistics of bringing thousands of vehicles and structures to the playa. (Although that word means "beach," it is universally used to describe the festival zone.)

Salon spoke to several former and current employees and volunteers for Burning Man, who painted a picture of a dangerous and stressful work environment and a toxic management culture that contributed to a number of suicides of seasonal employees, at a rate far greater than the national average. Those who spoke exclusively to Salon recalled tales of labor abuse, unequal wages, on-the-job-injuries including permanent blindness and a management that manipulated workers who were hurt or who tried to fight for improved conditions.

“They’re worse than Walmart at this point”

In February 2007, a small group of workers for Burning Man staged a protest in front of the company’s San Francisco headquarters, concerned about their labor conditions. A grainy YouTube video recording of the protest shows several employees wearing paper bags over their heads; one holds a sign reading “Burning Man = Walmart.”

The videographer soon homes in on the clear leader: Caleb Schaber, who goes by “Shooter” on the playa. (Many Burning Man employees and regulars have “playa names,” nicknames they use only at Burning Man). As the videographer probes him with questions, Schaber tells a sordid story of employer malfeasance.

“They don’t help out the workers that are injured, quite often, and they just try to get them to work for the most by giving them the least and then discard them,” Schaber tells the cameraman. “They seem to feel that it’s OK to exploit the workers like they’re some kind of resource that’s just there to take and not help out,” he continues. “They’re a multi-million-dollar corporation that has franchises, and they’re not taking care of their workers.”

Wearing a dark-brown goatee and with long, curly hair tucked under a beanie, Schaber resembles a plain-spoken Che Guevara. The coastal breeze sends strands of hair dancing around his face as Schaber grimaces and explains that more people wanted to attend his protest but were too afraid.

“We had a lot of people who wanted to come but they got scared . . . some people get grants from Burning Man and some people still work for Burning Man, and if they find out who you are they won’t hire you,” he told the cameraman.

Schaber was a full-time employee for Burning Man in 2003. Previously, he worked as a war photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan. Schaber had quit his seasonal job at Burning Man but continued to work as a volunteer and to fight for worker rights in Burning Man’s Department of Public Works — the internal name for the division of seasonal workers who build the bulk of the infrastructure that allows the desert festival to function. These workers — his friends — had been taken advantage of by an organization that was meant to represent a rebellion against what “the man” represented, Schaber said.

“They’ve taken Guerilla art and turned it into a real corporation,” he said. “They’re worse than Walmart at this point.”

As the video continues, something strange happens: Rather than join in solidarity, people emerge from within the Burning Man headquarters to form a counterprotest. One man with his shirt off tries to hug Schaber, who quickly backs away and says, “Do not hug me.”

“Are you afraid of a hug?” the other man asks. “Why are you here?”

Another person exits from Burning Man’s headquarters with a sign that reads, “My protest is better than yours.”

A friend of Schaber’s, an unidentified female seasonal employee of the Department of Public Works who asked to remain anonymous for fear of recrimination, was particularly alarmed by the company’s reaction to the protest in 2007. “The people that were working in the building just had the most smug response to it,” she said, adding that the events that led to the protest showed the “first real sign of disconnect” between upper management and its employees and volunteers. “It was very strange,” she said.

“If you upset the people high up, it's like all of them ostracize you”

Ricardo Romero, 35, began working with the DPW in 2008. He had originally volunteered with Burners Without Borders, assisting disaster relief in Pisco, Peru after the 2007 earthquake, where he met a DPW manager who offered him a position on the playa.

Romero told Salon he was a volunteer at first. “I never asked for much money, kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, respected the authority,” he explained. Still, what he saw happening troubled him. “Over the years I just kept on seeing so many of my co-workers getting fired for complaining about worker treatment,” he explained. Romero says he heard from others that if they compared pay — which varied wildly, depending on management’s whims — they could get fired. “I’d hear things like, ‘That person got fired because they stuck up for someone or called out some abuse that they witnessed,’” he added.

Romero noted that management seemed to hold grudges. “I had enough of it,” Romero told Salon, “and then in 2014 I contacted a labor lawyer.”

Romero had been talking to workers about possibly organizing a union, in an effort to fight back against their treatment and get more transparency about wages and wage differentials. In April 2017, he received a call: He was “uninvited” to return to Burning Man. It would have been his ninth year.

Burning Man denied firing Romero in a statement, claiming instead that “his temporary employment expired.”

“The only reason I got fired was because I talked back to management and brought up issues related to how workers were treated, how we were informed and how the company supported us and cared about us,” Romero said. “As a laborer, I was in good standing.”

“When Burning Man did not offer him a position the following year, Romero complained to the National Labor Relations Board,” Jim Graham, Burning Man spokesperson, told Salon in an email. “The complaint made no mention about unionizing.” (Both Romero and Romero’s lawyer, Kevin Brunner, dispute the company’s claim that he was not fired for trying to organize)

“Burning Man decided to settle the charge rather than go through the time-consuming process of litigating it. There was never any finding of wrongdoing,” Graham added. “As part of the settlement, Burning Man provided NLRB's standard notice language to its employees. Burning Man ensures all employees are aware of their rights under federal labor law and does nothing to stand in the way of their exercise of those rights.”

Romero said the organization’s response is “part of a campaign to discredit me and diminish the importance of the NLRB case.”

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Right before he was "uninvited,” Romero suggested that some of his colleagues refrain from signing their contracts to protest mistreatment. If that's why he was fired, that would likely violate national labor laws. Romero added he believes that Burning Man’s claim they did not want to go through the “time-consuming process of litigating it” is contradicted by management's decision to hire two large law firms. One is Jackson Lewis, which has a reputation for union busting.

Romero was represented by Kevin Brunner of the law firm of Siegel, Yee and Brunner, an Oakland firm whose attorneys have a long legacy of civil rights and labor law. It is illegal to fire someone for trying to organize, Brunner told Salon, saying that in his judgment Romero’s case was cut-and-dried.

“Employees have the right to band together and organize for better working conditions, even short of joining the union,” Brunner explained. “You have the right to get together with other co-workers and organize for more money or shorter hours or whatever it may be. And that's what they retaliated against him for doing — he was organizing people to get better pay and better working conditions, and because of that they decided they were going to not hire him, and that was a violation of the National Labor Relations Act.”

The NLRB agreed with Romero, and the Burning Man organization was forced to issue a statement. Romero, ultimately, got a settlement that both he and his lawyer were happy with. “Part of the settlement was they had to rehire him and then post those notices and pay him back pay,” Brunner told Salon. The company was also obliged to make an official apology and post a notice to its employees, which Salon obtained.

Romero’s victory does not mean that the labor woes of Burning Man are over. For one thing, there is still no union on the playa.

“It seems suspect that Burning Man is complying with all of their obligations in terms of overtime, pay, minimum wage pay, those kinds of things and the way they set up their systems,” Brunner said. “They seemed to be, certainly, taking advantage of their employees.”

Burning Man as a festival and a nonprofit prides itself on its "10 Principles" and promotes them rigorously — a set of values that include “radical inclusion,” gifting, decommodification and civic responsibility, which could factor into the blurred lines within the organization. Yet there is a steep differential between the salaries for the workers who make the festival run and the upper management: Romero told Salon he was offered $15 per hour to work this season. According to 2016 tax filings, salaried managers earn between $150,000 to $200,000, more than four and a half times Romero’s wage.

“Burning Man is outside the mainstream,” Brunner added. “Like, people are lucky to be part of it, they're lucky to work there. It's part of the fun. It's sort of like a community building this event for everybody. The reality is that a lot of money is made off of it and a lot of people seemed to be well-paid to run it. They do rely on this sort of communal aspect and the communal ethos that they have to get people to work for less money.”

One DPW member who would not give a name for fear of retaliation says the remote location of Burning Man makes the wage situation more problematic. “You’re stuck out there,” she said, “two hours from banks, from ATM.”

Women who worked at Burning Man spoke of observing gender inequities in wages. Ridge Arterburn was a Burning Man volunteer working for the DPW from 2007 to 2014 (with the exception of 2012). “In ’15 I was asked to not return,” she told Salon.

Arterburn said that there was a gender gap where her paycheck was concerned.

“Yes, women are treated differently there,” Arterburn said. “Many times ... qualified women are overlooked for positions . . . Then have to fight and say, look, in the real world here’s my certifications.”

“Women are paid less than men,” Arterburn continued. “I know this from hearing what people make.”

Annie Bond, 28, began working at Center Camp Café in 2012 and corroborated reports of gender discrimination. At first she was under contract by a vendor working at Burning Man, but she got poached by the Burning Man organization. She dated her manager, who promoted her as his assistant, but after they broke up, she quickly realized where the organization's priorities lay: with her ex.

“Previously we had a great working relationship and it seemed really infallible and strong, and all of a sudden he was not talking to me; he would put me on hold on the radio and never come back, and he wouldn’t tell other departments I was his assistant," she said.

Bond was told a position was waiting for her, after she decided to take a year off, but the following year she was told the organization didn't have a budget to rehire her. Bond said she agreed with a friend who said Burning Man culture was pervaded with "toxic masculinity."

There was "manipulation through, you know, various forms of male-generated power of persuasion,” she explained.

While Romero was lucky to get a settlement, many Burning Man employees who were fired unjustly or mistreated by the company weren’t so lucky.

“One of my friends who was really close with upper management, she was not invited to come back ... after she brought up how she thought it was morally wrong the way they were paying people and treating people,” Romero told Salon. “She described it as upsetting the mafia,” Romero added, echoing sentiments Schaber expressed in 2007. “You're either in, you’re in the club and you're like one of the mafia, the earners or the bosses, and then there's like the little street earners or the rest of us workers. If you upset the people high up, it's like all of them ostracize you and your best friends will turn their backs on you.”

According to the department’s official handbook, which can be found online, pay is determined by “Category and Tier.” “We have done our best to keep pay consistent across the pay tiers,” the handbook states. “It should be noted that some people who have held their jobs for a while may be making more than their pay tier would indicate.”

The island of misfit toys

Two years after Schaber’s protest, he died. The official cause of death was suicide. It is one of many that have rocked Burning Man’s Department of Public Works over the last decade.

Deaths in the DPW are so common that the manual distributed to workers each year — which can be found online — includes a section dedicated to those who have died. There is also a memorial in the DPW saloon at Burning Man.

“It has over a dozen pictures of people who killed themselves or have tragically killed in a car accident . . . but the majority of them are suicide,” Arterburn explained.

Many of Schaber’s friends and co-workers believe that the way he was treated by Burning Man after challenging its labor practices was a contributing factor in his death.

“He just wanted to be paid a fair day’s wage, and he wanted the crews that he worked with to be paid the same,” said a DPW staffer who was afraid to give a name for fear of retribution. “He wanted it to resemble a community and a job at the same time.”

“If I had to guess I’d say that, yes, being ostracized from DPW is very painful,” Arterburn corroborated, adding that Schaber was “troubled” before he died.

Arterburn explained to Salon that the unique conditions and experiences of working on the playa lead to unique personalities being attracted to the event — the kinds of people who, in Arterburn’s words, might not fit in elsewhere in society. “If one is in DPW, it’s my opinion that they’re in there for a reason,” she said. “Your average person who has a nine-to-five job and has watched their parents take two weeks off for holiday time a year probably wouldn’t be able to handle that environment for the amount of time that DPW was there.”

Salon found that in the seven years between 2009 and 2015, there were seven DPW worker suicides in the department.

That number is statistically significant enough to be alarming, according to Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas, a psychologist and the lead of the Workplace Task Force for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “To give you a benchmark, in a community of 1,000 people we would expect one suicide death in one decade,” she explained. Spencer-Thomas noted that the construction industry in the U.S. does have an elevated suicide rate.

Romero worked at the DPW during a period in which many of his colleagues took their own lives. “In less than 12 months we had three suicides [from 2013 to 2014],” Romero told Salon. “It was high enough that only someone who doesn’t give a s**t in management wouldn’t be doing something to address this.”

Ryan Brown, 40, whose playa name was “Cave Man,” died in 2014, He was a friend of Romero, who was involved in the events that led up to his suicide. At 2014 Burning Man, Romero said there were fears that Brown would become violent with his wife, though Romero stressed there was no apparent history of domestic abuse in their relationship. “He progressively got more and more distressed, and he felt like nobody was communicating with him honestly,” he said. Salon reached out to Brown’s widow for comment, but she declined to comment.

Romero encouraged Brown to leave the playa on his own terms when matters escalated. Romero says a dramatic removal during Burning Man is sometimes warranted — if someone is attacked or sexually assaulted, for example — but in Brown’s case, Romero believes his firing was handled poorly. Management asked Brown to leave, according to Romero, and the events that followed led to his tragic death: Brown reportedly went on a drug and alcohol bender and was arrested on suspicion of reckless driving and possession and use of cocaine (He drove a car through the lobby of a hotel). A few days later, he was found dead in his hotel room. The coroner ruled the death a suicide.

This was not the first time Romero had witnessed upper management remove someone from the playa in a way that could affect the person’s mental health.

“In years past, I had friends kicked off of playa or the worksite, and you can kind of tell when managers involved in this process are looking very stern, serious and looking over,” he said. “What they do is basically just toss you off the site. They give you no compensation, and they basically tell you you’re on your own . . . a lot of times they are people who aren’t getting paid or they are getting paid very little.” Romero called it “a very traumatic situation.”

Because of the unique and tight-knit nature of the Burning Man worker community, getting fired can be particularly devastating, as many workers have never felt that level community or camaraderie in any other aspect of their lives. According to Romero, the experience creates potentially dangerous highs and lows.

"There are high rates of depression because you do have the effects of institutionalization out there,” Romero said. “It is a remote location. It can be a long season. It's mentally and physically stressful and you’ve got a lot of camaraderie and it's a place where you feel important.”

On Facebook in 2014, Brown posted a photo of himself with a certificate from an outpatient addiction program. His friends attest that working on the playa was a form of healing for him, and Romero asserts that management knew that they had a mini-epidemic of suicide among their workers. “At [the] point [that Brown died], suicide was a problem," he said. It can be "a traumatic experience for people just to leave there on their own will after their contract is over," he continued, "let alone to be fired and separated from a million people who you feel accept you — and also maybe your spouse – all in one day.” Romero said he doesn’t blame Burning Man management for Brown’s death, but is still upset that nothing was done to mitigate a dangerous and escalating situation or to handle it more carefully.

“I think, in a sense, every suicide that has happened is related to the work,” he said. “They may not all be exactly caused by it, but it’s all related.”

Eric Close, whose playa name was “Myster E.,” was “one of those people that was trying to get out of pain," according to Schaber's friend, a DPW member who would not give a name for fear of recrimination. Close worked at the DPW until spring 2004, and worked “very closely with upper management” to provide employees with housing at a trailer park in Gerlach, Nevada, the nearest permanent town. Close may have had an opioid problem, a DPW member recalled, but was also under stress at work.

“I wasn’t sure when the problem developed, but I remember him being stressed out working for [Burning Man], saying that he didn’t feel like he was earning money to do what he [wanted to be] doing because he was always working,” she said.

Close and Schaber were good friends, and they reportedly had more in common than Burning Man: a desire for community.

“I think both [Close and Schaber] have the same trait, in that they went out there with the best of intentions, didn’t get all of their needs met,” she told Salon. “I have experienced some of this as well — you know, just feeling like you are being dumped by the community for whatever reason, or maybe there is a conflict and people decide that they are going to quit . . . [The job] is so heavily tied in with the social.”

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She also stressed the same subject Romero did, the intense experience of working on the playa: “You see people in situations [where] you would probably not see them in most other lines of work, or even just socially, if you had never gone out there together. It produces incredible highs and lows. I think it’s a bit like other industries, certain aspects of the military for instance, where there is a lot of camaraderie and people have to work together and they have to rely on each other.”

The kind of people who are attracted to work in such an extreme and isolated environment may already be struggling, as Brown and Close were.

"The ethical part is that employers need to look in the mirror and ask, if you knew there was something you could do that could make a difference, why aren’t you doing it?” Spencer-Thomas of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention told Salon.

Fighting for their lives

It was not until Romero and dozens of co-workers brought the suicides to upper management’s attention in 2014 that the organization took action. “Myself and some co-workers created a survey about the most pressing issues, work-related issues that DPW was facing,” Romero explained. “It was in response to me bringing out a labor lawyer in 2014 and wanting to kind of negotiate how DPW is treated and represented in the company.”

Romero requested a meeting with upper management to discuss DPW issues, but they asked him to create a “survey” for the department instead. “Upper management was not happy with what happened next," he said. The survey was posted to internal DPW online social media and then to a DPW Facebook page, and then it appeared on a public website. 

After management reportedly got upset, Romero continued to tabulate grievances with his DPW colleagues, which included their concerns about mental health and the number of suicides in the department. More 70 DPW workers contributed to the survey, according to the document shared with Salon, which eventually was shared with upper management:

There is a great deal of concern about the high frequency of depression and suicide among Black Rock City LLC (BRC) workers. While several factors contribute to depression and suicide, and correlation is not causation, the fact remains that 3 suicides (in a year) is an astonishingly high rate for virtually any population so small, and more so because, while these deaths are mourned, they are not entirely unexpected.

To put this in perspective, the US Army in 2011 reported a peak of 22.9 suicides per 100,000 soldiers, which was the highest rate seen in a decade. Per 100,000 appears to be a standard metric for this sort of thing. Assuming the combined numbers of Gate, DPW and Rangers to be approximately 1,000 strong, that would mean a suicide rate of 300 per 100,000. Statistically speaking, Black Rock City’s staff are 13 times more likely to kill themselves in the off-season than veterans returning from active combat duty. Even in a “slow year”, where only one BRC worker commits suicide, that is still 4 times the Army’s highest recorded suicide rate.

According to Romero, in 2015 the company responded to the survey with a document called “DPW Report Out.”

“They ended up adding EAP [employee assistance program] benefits,” Romero said. “It was on a page, the very last page of our contracts. It was after the point where you sign your contract, and so I didn't see it when I signed my contract and one of my co-workers did. I went to inquire about them and found out that [the benefits] were only available to us while we were on the playa.”

Given that cell phone service and internet access is generally unavailable on the playa, this benefit was largely useless. In 2016, Romero advocated to extend the EAP benefits, which included a work-based program designed to identify and assist employees with personal problems.

“After I advocated that they extend them to the rest of the year -- I don't know if I caused that, but they then extended those benefits to one year from date of hire,” Romero said.

Jim Graham, Burning Man’s spokesperson, told Salon in an email when asked about the suicides and mental health of the workers that “worker safety is paramount to Burning Man and we are exceptionally proud of the extensive resources we provide to staff.”

“Burning Man’s medical resources at the event also include a state-licensed urgent care facility and six satellite first-aid stations, mental health support services, and on-site emergency air transport,” he said. “We also have our Black Rock Rangers and People Operations teams on site to support staff in need of mental health resources.”

“Burning Man ruined her life”

While Romero observed co-workers commit suicide, other dangerous if non-fatal working conditions concern many DPW members. “There were times when people were injured and the insurance company had no idea how to communicate. People were kind of left out,” said one DPW member. “I think they didn’t know what they were doing.”

Yet the most egregious instance of on-the-job injury came in 2014, when a Burning Man Ranger named Kelli Hoversten was permanently blinded by a laser, disabling her for life. Rangers, volunteers who help patrol and manage the playa during Burning Man, are a crucial part of the festival's logistics. Rangers frequently intervene in dangerous situations and prevent them from escalating to the point where a law enforcement agent might need to be involved, often assisting intoxicated guests or providing help to lost or confused Burners.

On Aug. 30, 2014, Hoversten, in her capacity as a Ranger, was working as a “Sandman” — Burning Man terminology for the Rangers who wear heat-protective gear and ring the central effigy that is ritualistically burned on the final Saturday night of the festival. Sandmen constitute the last line of defense between attendees and the raging fire that results from the burn; occasionally, a deranged or drugged participant slips through their perimeter and perishes in the blaze, as one man did as recently as 2017.

On that night in 2014, Hoversten stood with her back to the burning effigy, as she had been instructed, to monitor the revelers and prevent people from getting dangerously close to the burn. The eminent danger to her health turned out not to be the fire behind her but the lasers shone in her face by participants in front of her.

“So that is what I was doing: Standing there in the dark with the man behind me,” Hoversten explained. “With handheld lasers coming at me, before the man was finished burning I was completely blind in my left eye.”

When Hoversten realized something was wrong, she signaled her flashlight to the ground to her partner in the department. She quickly got in an ambulance and went to the main medical center on the playa. She now knows it would not have made a difference if she received instant medical attention, as the damage had already been done.

Eye specialists have told Hoversten that they think the damage was done by that "a high-powered laser off an art car," meaning one of the "Mad Max"-style customized vehicles common at the festival, rather than a handheld laser. "It crossed my field of vision and damaged my eyes, especially my left one, so bad in just that one strike that my pupil wouldn’t even sit correctly, and it still doesn’t,” she said. ”Therefore any subsequent laser that passed across my field of vision burned my retinas more.”

Today, Hoversten is permanently blind in her left eye and has damaged vision in her right eye that continues to deteriorate. Sandmen wear goggles at Burning Man today and handheld lasers have been banned, although lasers on top of art cars are still allowed.

Prior to Hoversten's injury, she was an arborist and worked on her parents’ farm. Since then, she has loss her personal sense of freedom. Her future plans to take over the farm are gone.

“My mother’s exact words are ‘Burning Man ruined your life, they took your life away, you have no freedom,’” she said. “And I don’t — I can’t — you know, I was an outdoor person. I did all kinds of things I can’t do anymore.

“I can’t take myself camping by myself; I can’t get there,” she added. “I can’t go to any event by myself; I can’t get there. I want one of them to just put a patch over one of their eyes for one day and see that every single thing you do from cooking a meal, showering, trying to pluck your eyebrows, you cannot do any of it like you used to.”

The events that followed the accident made Hoversten’s recovery process more difficult. After being injured, Hoversten contacted the Nevada state workers’ compensation system. According to Nevada state law, volunteers are eligible to file when injured while volunteering, though this is not the case in every state. Nevada state law also requires that when an injured worker receives workers’ compensation, he or she cannot sue the employer. Hoversten connected with an executive claims consultant, as directed by Burning Man, who told her to file her claim in Missouri because that is was her permanent residence, advice she now says was legally incorrect. She says she was never told that there was a 90-day filing period in Nevada. By the time she figured that out, it was too late to file a claim.

“If I would have filed in Nevada, my case would have been much stronger,” she said. “When Burning Man [tells] you that they are helping you with workers' comp, they are not.”

Six months after the accident, Hoversten’s medical bills were piling up. In March 2015, one of her friends set up a GoFundMe to try to help her cope with the cost. At that point, Burning Man management finally took notice and offered her a $10,000 anonymous donation, attached to a nondisclosure agreement. A standard life insurance policy will generally pay $250,000 to someone who is rendered legally blind in both eyes on the job.

Hoversten had two weeks to accept the offer, which she says turned into two weeks of harassment by an employee in the human resources department. She did not accept the offer.

During this time, she claims a Burning Man employee tried to hack into her GoFundMe account to alter the copy to specify that Burning Man was helping her out financially. “That was a flat-out lie. They had not done anything for me financially at that point,” she explained.

Since then, Hoversten has received her workers' compensation settlement — while she cannot disclose the precise amount, she described it as insufficient to “buy a new SUV.” Hoversten was told by Burning Man that she would meet with Harley K. Dubois — a founding member of Black Rock City LLC — once her compensation case was settled, but the company failed to follow through. According to Hoversten, Dubois ignored her emails and calls. “Probably every three weeks, I was trying again,” she said. “Sometimes I would shoot her an email every day for a week.”

Eventually Dubois responded, and Burning Man opted to pay for Hovensten to have a life coach for two years.

“I want a settlement from Burning Man. I want my future to be financially secure. Because right now I have no security for my future,” Hoversten said. “I had plans to take over my parents' farm, and I can’t do that now. I can’t take care of my parents in a way that I had planned to before. I can’t drive them to the doctor's appointment anymore. I can’t do any of those things to help them.”

Hoversten still volunteers as a ranger at Burning Man; she is likely on the playa as this article is published. 

“I still believe in the [Burning Man] community and the service of the volunteers as a community,” she said, adding that there is a disconnect between upper management and those who run the festival — a gulf that appears to be widening and might hurt the festival in the long run. “If they don’t start caring about their volunteers and treating their volunteers like we are human beings and have worth, eventually they are going to run out, and they won’t get the people who have been volunteering since the beginning,” she explained.

Hoversten is not the only one who still finds value in the Burning Man community. Bond, who worked at Center Camp said she wants it to be "wonderful and beautiful again," but that would require changes in upper management.

"How do you get people to not abuse their power?" Bond asked. "It feels like there needs to be a shift in the alignment of their moral fibers."

When asked about the way Hoversten’s case was handled and whether or not she was told the truth regarding how to proceed with workers’ compensation, Burning Man declined to comment. Graham, the Burning Man spokesperson, told Salon that lasers have been banned since her injury, with a few exceptions.

“At the 2014 event, a Black Rock Ranger reported being seriously injured by exposure to a laser during the Man Burn on Saturday evening of the event,” Graham said in an email. “For the safety and security of all participants and staff, all handheld lasers have been banned from the event since 2015, and mounted lasers are only permitted on art pieces, Mutant Vehicles and in theme camps if they comply with specific restrictions and pass an inspection from our Safety team.”

“All lasers are banned at the Man Burn,” he said.

Yet when watching a video of the 2017 Man Burn on YouTube, one can see lasers are still part of the show. The official Burning Man website says lasers “must be off when prior to the fire conclave entering the Great Circle” but can be used again after “the perimeter has been released by the Rangers.”

*  *  *

The late Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s co-founder, laid out his vision for Burning Man in the aforementioned document now known as the “The 10 Principles of Burning Man." In it, Harvey describes Burning Man as being guided by a vision of "radical inclusion," "decommodification" and “civic responsibility." “We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation,” Harvey wrote.

Burning Man is intended to be a utopian celebration, a break from the banal routine of a capitalist work culture, an event that is radically inclusive to all who desire to express an authentic part of themselves that is not accepted in what Burners call the "default world." Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, the festival appears to have replicated the very problems it sought to transcend. Burning Man set out to burn “the man," but in many ways it has become the man.

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By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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