Why Do Orchestras Carry Different Health Plans For Musician And Admin Employees?

Yesterday’s post, Channeling Your Rage Over Health Care Costs, produced some fascinating discussion by way of social media and one topic in particular that emerged was the conflict created by an orchestral employer offering one level of health care to musicians and something entirely different to administrative employees, the latter of which is typically comprised of two tiers: “executives” (top tier employees) and “staffers” (entry to middle tier employees). After some internal research, it appears that we’ve never examined this topic over the past 12 years so it’s high time to correct that oversight as this issue is becoming increasingly important within the field.

Necessary Perspective

Adaptistration People 135Like many issues within the field, this one doesn’t unfold the same way across budget thresholds. To begin with, it is important to understand how health care benefits are applied across stakeholders based on an organization’s budget size.

  • At smaller to mid-size budget orchestras, musician employees are less likely to receive any health benefits whereas full time staffers and executives usually have some sort of option (albeit, usually bottom tier plans).
  • Only a handful of small/mid budget size organizations offer equal options to both administrative and musician employees.
  • As budget sizes increase, this ratio begins to shift and at the highest budget groups, musician employees are far more likely to have excellent health care benefits as part of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) whereas staffers are offered lower level plans and executive plans vary from one group to the next.

Next, it helps to recognize the difference between how an employer determines whether or not to offer benefits to musician and administrator and if so, which plans.

  • Musician benefits are determined by way of collective bargaining and any benefits offered are the direct result of those efforts and therefore only apply to employees that are a part of that bargaining unit.
  • Staff benefits are determined by what the employer wishes to offer. There may be internal discussion on options and the best course of action, but staffers do not have any leverage in determining the plans an employer must offer.
  • Employers are under no obligation to offer the same health care benefits to both union and non-union employees.
  • Executive benefits are a mixed bag in that the higher the budget size, the more likely it is for an executive to negotiate an individual health care package that can provide access to different plans and/or provide additional remuneration to cover the costs of ancillary coverage.

Us Vs. Them Tension

Given the separation between how the employer sets musician and administrative health care benefits, it isn’t difficult to see where internal conflict can grow between stakeholders. At larger budget orchestras, staffers can feel put upon by feeling they are subsidizing better health care plans for musician employees and the opposite is true at smaller budget groups where musicians, who are typically per-service employees, feel their income and benefit potential is being artificially limited to pay for full time staff and executive health care plans.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a polarizing topic among stakeholder groups.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember that while the frustrations are quite real, they ultimately exist due to decisions made by the respective orchestra’s executive leadership team, the executive board and CEO. There’s nothing preventing the employer from providing the same health care plan for musician and administrative employees but the current imbalance within most groups is the result of the decision making process outlined above vis-à-vis union and non-union employment status.

Regrettably, it isn’t uncommon to see those factors encourage some of the more negative stereotypical traits in all stakeholders.

Among employers, one of the more egregious tactics is to implement reductions to staff health care benefits as a tool to leverage similar concessions or cap increases via the union musician plan. You can typically spot these efforts by the sort of phrasing used in public statements during labor disputes. For reference, we examined this very issue in an article from 5/10/2012 and everything there is just as relevant today as it was then but in a nutshell, it is nothing if not disingenuous to use employees without workplace protections or the freedom to speak out contrary to an employer as pawns in negotiations with musicians with a higher degree of self-determination.

On the musician side of things, there is a long running disconnect between self-interest and the tenets of unionism. At larger budget orchestras where musicians occupy the desirable end of a health care benefit imbalance, this often takes the form of public talking points that reinforce the importance value and need for health care at proposed levels but that rhetoric tends to end at the collective bargaining agreement as opposed to extending to all employees. What you don’t see is the unionized musicians pointing out the imbalance and calling on the executive leadership to apply equal standards throughout the organization.

As you move down the budget scale, these practices tend to reverse until you reach the point where stakeholder groups occupy polar opposite positions.

Moving Forward

For a number of decades now, stakeholders have been curiously content with this imbalance and the internal tensions it generates but as health care costs continue to spiral out of control, these pressures have been growing at a similar rate of increase to the point where they are increasingly difficult for institutions to ignore. They reduce efficiency, increase turnover, and create progressively dysfunctional work environments that by their very nature rely on a higher than average level of cooperation in order to meet mission driven goals.

Although positive change ultimately begins within each respective orchestra, you’ll know the field as a whole is reaching a healthy tipping point when you begin to see these issues enter into mainstream public discourse.

For example, when the field begins to see League of American Orchestra conference and meeting sessions openly discussing the ethics of forcing cuts on staffers to use as bargaining leverage and American Federation of Musician player conferences (in particular, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) introduce open discussions via their communication channels about the importance of supporting and extending benefits to all employees regardless of union status, you’ll know that there are good things in store.

As of now, that goal may seem unimaginably far but if there’s anything that can help stakeholders this far apart come together with all due haste, it’s developing a mutual enemy; and barring any alterations from its current course, health insurance providers seem to be an excellent specimen.

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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