Philadelphia Pensions: Then And Now

Hopefully, you caught Peter Dobrin’s article in the 6/27/2011 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer which examines the Philadelphia Orchestra Association’s (POA) request to be relieved from their musician pension obligations via their bankruptcy petition. Dobrin provides an enormous amount of insight into current events an additional item worth considering here is the POA’s historic position on those pensions…

In 2004, the POA was pushing to enter the AFM pension plan.

In 2004, the POA was publicly stating that the musicians’ defined benefits pension plan in place at that time was no longer sustainable and as a result, the POA was pushing to enter the AFM plan (which is also a defined benefit plan) because according to the organization it would save money and reduce their risk. Here’s what they said back in 2004 via their “Roadmap to Extinction” (remember that?):

“…[we] can save more than $500,000 and have less risk…by freezing the current defined benefit plan and converting all musicians to the American Federation of Musicians plan.”

Back then, the musicians were initially against the idea but willing to consider the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) plan and ultimately agreed to the proposal. Jump ahead to 2011 and now the POA is asking a bankruptcy judge to help them reduce risk and save cash by granting their request to leave the pension plan, they pushed to join based on the belief that it would reduce risk and save cash. There’s a business moral here somewhere and ideally, the bankruptcy judge is taking this larger perspective into consideration when mulling over his impending ruling.

Defined Benefit vs. Defined Contribution Plans

Since the rise of pension related issues, I’ve received a number of reader queries asking about the difference between Defined Benefit and Defined Contribution plans. Fortunately, we covered this back in 2004 and the definitions provided then are just as useful today:

According to [Richard Wagner, CAP and Senior Manager for Clifton Gunderson LLP], one of the first things to understand is that there are two primary types of pension plans: one that pays out based on “defined contributions” and one that pays out “defined benefits”. Richard explained the plans to me this way:

Defined Contribution plans pay the retired employee benefits based on what percentage of their salary they contributed to the plan over their years of employment. Employers can also contribute to the plan based on a variety of percentages and scales. In this plan, the employee bears the investment risk since payments are based on the value of their plan as determined by the market over the course of the contribution period and benefit period.

Defined Benefit plans pay the retired employee a specific amount based on salary history and years of service, and in which the employer bears the investment risk. Contributions may be made by the employee, the employer, or both. An actuary (someone versed in the collection and interpretation of numerical data, especially someone who uses statistics to calculate insurance premiums) determines how much an employer will need to contribute over the years in order to maintain adequate funding for the benefit payments. So if the market goes down considerably, then the employer contributions need to increase proportionately in order to make up the difference.

In addition to the article excerpted above, we’ve examined pension issues on several occasions. In one article from 2007, I described underfunded pension plans as an issue that “could turn out to be an orchestra’s Achilles Heel.” Here’s an index of those articles:

  1. Pension Plans And Negotiations Part 1
  2. Pension Plans And Negotiations Part 2
  3. Parallels Among Pension Problems
  4. And Then There’s That Pension Thing…
  5. Sorting Out Pension Issues In Seattle

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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