Another Orchestra vs. Unemployment Incident

The 2011-12 season seems to be the year of pushing back against paying musicians unemployment benefits for some orchestras. In Louisville, the orchestra association fought hard to get their state’s Office of Employment and Training to revoke musician unemployment benefits and to pay back what they had received in 2011. Now it looks like the Richmond (VA) Symphony Orchestra (RSO) has decided to deal out a little damage of their own.

The 1/23/2012 and 1/24/2012 editions of the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a pair of articles written by Wesley P. Hester that reports on legislation being proposed by Virginia State Delegate G. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, that would prevent professional orchestra musicians from collecting unemployment benefits during the weeks when the musicians are not employed.

Orchestra Musicians Can Collect Unemployment?

Before jumping into the details of the Richmond situation, it’s worth taking a moment to review how all of this works since this is an issue many folks may not know much about. Add to that the politically charged nature of the topic and everyone would be wise to bone up on dispassionate details before jumping to any conclusions.

Keep in mind; although universal generalizations are easier to process, the reality is that each state maintains their own unemployment rules and regulations, so anything discussed here can vary from one state to the next.

In general, orchestra musicians employed in organizations that do not have 52 week seasons are eligible to collect unemployment benefits during the weeks they are not employed. Again, although it is not a universal application, many states allow individuals to qualify for unemployment benefits if you lose employment capacity through no fault of your own; and that includes being laid off temporarily or indefinitely.

And since the vast majority of professional orchestras do not employ the musicians for 52 weeks per year, the musicians may apply for unemployment benefits; qualifications, payments, and other terms are elements that vary from state to state. In many cases, if a musician takes employment during those non-employed weeks, they won’t collect benefits or might receive partial benefits if their replacement employment earns less than their applicable benefit amount.

For example, if a musician performs in a summer music festival that pays $150 per week but is entitled to a $175 per week unemployment benefit, they may still receive $25 per week in prorated unemployment payments.

For information on Virginia’s current unemployment rules and regulations, you can visit the Virginia Employment Commission website.

Back To Richmond

What makes both of Hester’s articles interesting is they include quotes from the RSO’s executive director, David Fisk, offering indirect support for Rep. Loupassi’s proposed legislation.

Richmond Symphony executive director David J.L. Fisk said that about a quarter of the orchestra’s 70 members collect unemployment in any give year, and an even higher number of the Virginia Symphony’s members.

“It’s a significant financial burden on both orchestras,” Fisk said, noting that performers for the symphony’s 38-week season earn between $33,000 and $44,000.

The Richmond Symphony pays its unemployment insurance out of pocket to the tune of about $70,000 a year, he said. But the bulk of the Virginia Symphony’s claims go directly through the state’s system, funded with taxpayer dollars.

Given the politically charged nature of the topic and the fact that the RSO is entering into collective bargaining negotiations this season, it’s curious to see why any statement offered to the local press would be anything other than “no comment.” By and large, performing arts organizations tend to lose whenever they become the epicenter of politically charged issues and unemployment benefits certainly fall within the confines of politically charged issues. Add to that the fun and games of a master agreement negotiation and it will be interesting to watch how this plays out for the RSO.

But to shed a little more light on some details reported in the Time-Dispatch and on the chance that they may have edited this info out of Fisk’s comments, here is how the RSO musician employment actually works for the 2011-12 season:

  • The orchestra utilizes a hybrid salary/per-service structure.
  • 36 musicians, or 53 percent, are employed via a minimum salary of $32,784.74 for a 38 week season; out of those, principal musicians are guaranteed a minimum annual salary of $44,095.48.
  • 32 musicians, or 47 percent, are paid at a per-service scale of $107.85 per service with varying levels of guaranteed service minimums ([sws_css_tooltip position=”center” colorscheme=”rosewood” width=”500″ url=”” trigger=”details” fontSize=”14″]150 services for Harp, Tuba; 100 services for third flute, second horn, fourth horn, second percussion; 76 services for strings, third trumpet, second and third trombone, bass clarinet; 35 services for contra bassoon, keyboard third percussion. [/sws_css_tooltip] ).

So as it stands, approximately half of the musicians actually earn a salary close to the figures reported in the Times-Dispatch, whereas the remaining per-service musicians earn substantially less (from $3,774.75 to $16,177.50).

Yet Another Wrinkle

Just in case you thought you were starting to get all of this straight, some recent developments in orchestra musician classification from the national level might give you something new to consider.

It may have taken awhile, but the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a ruling in response to a charge submitted by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) that musicians in the Lancaster, Cape Cod, and Plano Symphony Orchestras are statutory employees and not independent contractors.

Although a far cry from becoming unchallenged law of the land, it may very well impact what goes on within state legislatures when it comes to issues such as unemployment benefit guidelines. Even Virginia.

In the end, the proposed legislation may die before it even gains momentum or it may sweep through into law with little opposition. If it is the latter, keep an eye on whether or not other states may follow suit; and if that happens, then you’ll see more and more orchestras thrust into positions on how to appropriately deal with the situation via public statements and/or lobbying efforts.

As an aside; if you find yourself wondering who put the bug in Rep. Loupassi’s ear about RSO musicians filing for and collecting unemployment benefits during non-employed weeks, join the club. Neither of the Times-Dispatch articles indicates where Loupassi received his information.

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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26 thoughts on “Another Orchestra vs. Unemployment Incident”

  1. Drew, I wonder if David Fisk has joined other orchestra CEOs in the ongoing assault on musicians happening lately. Shouldn’t he have just issued a “no comment,” as you state above? Unemployment insurance has been part of the non-52 week orchestra musicians’ compensation since the 1950s.

    • I don’t think it is fair to draw any concrete conclusions based on Fisk’s single interview (which was clearly used as a source for both articles) so in that regard, there’s no way to begin forming an opinion without additional information. As the the unemployment point about 52 week orchestras, that’s a good distinction in that yes, those groups clearly take part in their respective state’s unemployment system and a musician would partake only due to unforeseen circumstances. It’s likely good to mention here that in orchestras that employ musicians for less than 52 weeks, filing for unemployment during those non-employed weeks is a known option if a musician is unable to find other work; which could be more closely aligned with known circumstances.

  2. True colors showing, that’s all. Just wait until the new Louisville players come in-watch the union fold. What are they going to do-honestly? Break heads? Gimme a break- Louisville will be an open shop disgrace with Freshmen from nearby music colleges filling the ranks.

    The fault is on both sides, years of players that wanted to make the decisions of management and management wanting to make the decisions of musicians. Guess who is going to win?

  3. So if a factory worker were to be laid off due to a slowdown in demand but be given a callback date 4 months down the road, would they not be able to collect unemployment either? The musicians would love to work for the employer year round. The employer is incapable of providing this work and therefore has to layoff the musicians until such time when they can provide work again. During this layoff the empoyees should be able to file and collect their unemployment insurance benefits.

  4. It would seem to me that most musicians are fully aware when they are hired by a seasonal that there will not be work during “dark” months…this is not the same as a lay off. Musicians at the RSO are entitled to insurance benefits during this “dark” period and if they are under contract, they are guaranteed return the next season. They are also eligible to receive their annual salary over a 12 month period if they choose. How is this the same as a typical “lay off”. I don’t see this as a target of musicians, but simply a way to sustain an organization (and musician’s jobs)!

    • I think you’ve pointed out the crux of what will likely become the issue if the legislation comes under any additional scrutiny in how the employment is defined. In the current RSO collective bargaining agreement, there is no mention that employment is seasonal so in this instance, that application could be more difficult to apply than not. Even the notion of “annual salary” is not a clear cut issue.

      Ultimately, these are precisely the sorts of fine points that state legislatures and the Federal government attempt to define and interpret on an ongoing basis.

    • That’s a good question Steve and I don’t have a reliable answer for that but in one of the Times-Dispatch articles (I forget which one off the top of my head) there was a comment from VA reader claiming to be a musician and a teacher who mentioned that some of the differences on the teacher side was related to teachers being offered work but on an optional basis, which precludes what would be typical conditions for being laid off. Assuming clear cut guidelines exist (which very well might not be the case), it would be fascinating to have them as a reference.

  5. And perhaps the dirty secret that we are skirting around here is that some musicians might use unemployment benefits as a temporary stop-gap measure, whereas other use unemployment as extra income on an annual basis. Maybe it is just a game of semantics, but I see a big difference.

    I have a small issue with musicians that use unemployment on a yearly basis during the summer months, rather than exploring other options. Personally I never took unemployment since getting a temp job always paid better – and it took out taxes.

    Like I stated at the beginning, this topic feels like a little dirty secret – psst, hey FREE MONEY – and admittedly it is one that I do not fully understand.

    Other people in much worse situations than I ever was, and are so much more deserving of that civic service. It just seems … well … lazy, in both action and thinking.

    (Ducking for cover.)

    • Like the earlier reader comment, I think your observations demonstrate how politically sensitive of an issue this is. But if you take the ideology out of the equation and focus on the system as it exists, you run into another ethical quandary: if it is the case that some musicians abuse the system by not really looking for very hard for work, should those who are making every effort be penalized by removing the qualifications?

      One aspect that would likely help in these instances is if it were made clear exactly what the guidelines are in each state along with providing some sort of resource for uncovering the reasoning behind it. It would be difficult to believe that there was no debate when the rules and regulations were originally crafted and having some insight into the prevailing and dissenting opinions would be fascinating.

      • Good point on the fairness of opportunity for all. I guess my main beef is the same as “2E” – the definition of “lay off.”

        As an aside, there is some interesting data here (from 2009):

        Some states intentionally keep their UI low, in order to attract businesses

        North Dakotans can work part-time and earn as much as 60% of their weekly benefits.

        Every dollar a New Yorker earns while drawing an unemployment check is subtracted from his or her benefits.

        Some states allow for compensation due to a work loss resulting from domestic abuse.

        I never realized that the compensation numbers and rules were so widely varied from state-to-state. The interactive map gives a some insight as well. (My own state of AZ has one of the lowest rates in the country.)

  6. If you want to get nerdy, Virginia guidelines can be found here:

    It defines unemployment as: An individual shall be deemed “unemployed” in any week during which he performs no services and with respect to which no wages are payable to him, or in any week of less than full-time work if the wages payable to him with respect to such week are less than his weekly benefit amount.

    On page 49 it mentions that in the 80’s it was determined that specifically Richmond Symphony musicians do not fall under the same restrictions as teachers and are eligible for unemployment benefits. It states: “The provisions of this statute do not apply to employees of an organization which conducts educational programs but is not licensed as a school. In Brown v. Richmond Symphony, Commission Decision 26044-C, (March 7, 1986), MS 5, it was held that although the employer, The Richmond Symphony, had a music education program, it was not an educational institution within the meaning of the statute because it was not licensed as a school and its staff members were not licensed teachers. Therefore, the claimant, an assistant concert master, would not be prevented from
    using these wages as the basis for monetary entitlement on a claim filed during two successive program years.”

    • Fascinating content AN, many thanks for doing some heavy-duty due diligence on that! what’s particularly interesting is the fact that the orchestra’s education programs functioned as the linchpin for the decision and in today’s orchestra field environment, expanding education oriented services and incorporating them into more of the institutional mission is an even stronger component for most organizations. So given the original rationale for granting unemployment benefits, it could be interpreted that if the RSO has followed suit with this national trend, then they should more vested in the unemployment system, not less.

  7. Most orchestras management staff work year round, for salary. There is no reason to assume that musicians are not maintaing their craft, without performing, just because management’s inability to fill seats at other times of the year. Administrators are failing to raise more donors, donations and are not filling enough seats if cuts are being made, any tier orchestra. Musicians are job attached, look it up. Why should 40 people on management staff be paid year round? What is more important, the artists, or the administrators. Is a musician not “working” when maintaining their craft? There seems to be ZERO respect, and you people should be ashamed of yourselves. The SMUG is smelly and audacious.

    Musicians are being “laid off” because of management’s inability to raise enough funds to employ them year round.

    Musicians know they are job attached and should not be attacked for it. Find something else to cut, and RAISE MORE MONEY, be more innovative . Meet your goals and QUIT SHIFTING THE BLAME. You need TO GET BETTER, and quit thinking you are JUST doing your job, when the musicians ARE the product. Cut costs elsewhere, be more efficient. FILL MORE SEATS.

    This article seems like an attack on musicians, and you really need to rethink your approach as you are arguing, or highlighting the wrong thing. Management needs to Start with a respect for the product, and the choices of music.

    • Matt –

      I don’t think this conversation is about shifting blame so much as it is a discussion of the many sides to a very complex issue. As a veteran musician myself I can identify with the sentiment that good management and good faith are big problems, and there are certainly examples to point to to illustrate where those things have failed.

      A complex issue is hardly as simple as pointing a finger at one element and exclusively holding it to the fire. My mother one said, “never point at someone, because in doing so you have three fingers pointing back at you.”

      Every business has its issues – from the top to the bottom.

      This is not to say that speaking aloud in regards to musicians in the field is being disrespectful or smug. While I do realize that a huge element of a musician organization’s strength comes from solidarity and a strong, unified opinion, that mind-set (in my own personal view) sometimes riddles complex issues with dead ends and blind spots, all worth examining in plain view with plain language.

    • Speaking as an administrator myself, I will reply briefly. Though, I work at a 52-week orchestra, so my world may be different from yours:

      1. My development colleagues have been increasing their fundraising goal by 8% per year, on average, for the past several years (including increases in every recession year). And every single year when we create the budget, we have to cut stuff to get in balance, even with this large contributions increase. We also increase ticket prices as much as we can without alienating audiences, and we are always working on new initiatives to find new audiences. We have to work on this all year round, even in the summer when there aren’t concerts going on.

      2. Our jobs as administrators are always much more at risk than the jobs of the union musicians. The size of the orchestra and the cost structure of salaries & benefits for musicians is contractually negotiated through a collective bargaining process. If we have to find a way to cut 5% out of the budget, there are almost zero ways to trim musician costs without changing the contract via collective bargaining. Everything else is already budgeted pretty close to the bone, so administrative staff may have to take a wage freeze, or we cut part-timers, temps, or outside consultants (sorry, Drew). But if there is nothing left to cut but full-time people (and this is a service business–people are the most expensive part of the budget), administrators will face the ax, not musicians.

      We aren’t complaining about this, by the way. I don’t think any of us on the administrative staff thinks we contribute more than an orchestra member to how the organization works. But we are working hard, whether you know it or not, and we face more risk of termination than musicians who are protected by collective bargaining.

      • Good points all around and thank you for taking the time to send in such a terrific comment! It’s especially worthwhile to point out the job security differences between administrators and musicians; especially during periods of economic stress. It brings up a tangentially related issue which has always left a bad taste in my mouth along the lines of a CEO or board chair issuing press statements during budget cuts that parallel negotiations along the lines of how “management has accepted cuts, now it’s time for musicians to do the same.”

        It always seems insensitive to the reality that managers and staffers don’t get much (if any) the sort of input musicians exercise vis-a-vis negotiations on those decisions; they are simply told how things will be and they can either accept it and stay or reject it and leave. They may have an opportunity to offer opinions and input but ultimately, they have no influence beyond that (and even that participation is fraught with concern over being singled out as a troublemaker). In that sense, they are the least influential stakeholder group in an organization and presenting an enforced pay cut as some universally accepted strategic decision among all non-musician employees is more counter-intuitive to unified vision than what it being projected.

        Lastly, cutting staff before approaching musicians only builds resentment. If a financial situation is sincerely that dire, it’s typically better to approach all stakeholders before swinging the ax in any one direction. In that sense, it devalues staffers even more in the sense that they are being used as pawns to leverage cuts elsewhere.

        In the end, all of this only contributes to a negative institutional culture.

        Fortunately, there are always groups who are the exception to that rule and the middle managers and staffers are treated with a much greater degree of respect as valued assets and evaluated accordingly based on annual performance.

        And please, no apologies for the comment about cutting consultants. If anything, I tend to get very upset when I see groups involved in contentious negotiations and/or massive cuts in the office turn around and hire expensive consultants believing they will solve their problems. I have little respect for those individuals and firms as they are taking advantage of desperation and the folks who suffer the most are those in the office. So in that sens,e I’m all for building internal culture and competence internally and only seeking outside help when the ROI is a sure thing.

  8. The musicians are the protected product regardless of job security. There are specific protections based on maintaining the level of the product. You must understand this first to even have dialog on this subject of job attached.

    The administrators come and go regardless of job security, some CEO’s come in, destroy with bad planning, spending too much, and NOT FILLING SEATS, then leave. They have great headhunters, and the vicious cycle continues.

    The way one Arts org works, does not mean a musical art org will work that way.

    With all the rhetoric heard in the replies, I would like to part with this:

    If you want to succeed in the art administration, give the musicians themselves more opportunities to be relevant in their communities. Stop making the “org” relevant, which at the end of the day still fails to make your own title of Development “fundraising”, CEO (manager), Chief Financial Officer “Accountant” and Marketing Manager should be titled “Advertiser” truly as relevant as the concertmaster or even the music/ conductor/composer/soloist. A true paradigm shift must occur. The audience feels this divide and karma rules in these first world issues of entertainment.

    • Matt, I have to weigh-in at this point and say that an attitude which embraces demonizing and devaluing orchestra administrators is nothing but counterproductive. An excellent manager (whether s/he be the CEO, Marketing Director, Personnel Manager, part time administrative assistant and everyone in-between) is worth their weight in gold if their job performance is instrumental in the organization maximizing its potential; and reaching that potential is nothing short of a group effort.

      I would suggest that adopting any attitude built on a foundation that “without us, you’re nothing” is going to produce nothing but heartache and resentment.

      Lastly, I have absolutely no idea about the point you attempting to make when you wrote “There are specific protections based on maintaining the level of the product. You must understand this first to even have dialog on this subject of job attached.” Consequently, in order to have this discussion I’d appreciate it if you could expand on that and help me understand.

  9. Management provides stark realities to musicians all the time. Why turn my comments into demonizing and personal, when if you look at the substance of my comments, I am asking for change. Is change THAT frightening, or are you trying to protect the fragile thread between relevance as a non-musican in a musical institution?

    Who is providing the product, and who is being victimized with these cuts. The same department. The other job titles are responsible for maintaining that product, and if that product has to file for unemployment or folds, or has to make cuts, then management has failed.

    • The trouble with your comments are that they project a universal tone; for example, your initial sentence (“Management provides stark realities to musicians all the time.”) indicates all managers do this to all musicians. But that simply isn’t the case, there are many excellent managers and there are terrible managers as well; we’ve examined both sides of those extremes as well a their respective outcomes here at Adaptistration since 2003.

      But I am still confused as to what sort of change you’re talking about; likewise, I’m still curious to know what you mean when you wrote “There are specific protections based on maintaining the level of the product. You must understand this first to even have dialog on this subject of job attached.”

      Instead, your comments have been projecting a great deal of anger and resentment but not enough clarity for me to understand your points.

      In particular, it would be enormously helpful if you were to clarify whether or not you are referencing the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in particular, some other ensemble(s), or the field as a whole.

  10. At some point it would be useful to include the role of an organization’s Board of Directors in this discussion. This will certainly broaden the discussion, but it is the Board which sets the tone (or, at least, should set the tone) for the entire operation. (E.g., NY City Opera debacle.)

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