Unraveling The Mystery Of Paid Vacation Weeks

A few weeks ago during one of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra negotiation articles, I indicated that we would take some time to examine a topic we’ve never studied before: vacation time. Although vacation time seems like a fairly straightforward item to those outside the field, there’s actually quite a bit more going on under the surface.

Necessary Perspective

Adaptistration Guy CalendarsLike many issues within the field, this one doesn’t unfold the same way across the variety of season length thresholds nor is it consistent between union employees (musicians) and non-union employees (administrative staff). To begin with, it is important to understand how paid vacation day benefits are applied across stakeholders based on an organization’s season length.

  • At smaller to mid-season length orchestras, musician employees are less likely to receive any paid vacation benefits whereas full time staffers and executives usually receive something, even it is only a few days.
  • Only a handful of small/mid-season length organizations offer equal options to both administrative and musician employees.
  • As season length increases, this ratio begins to shift and at groups with full 52-week seasons, musician employees are far more likely to receive paid vacations days in excess of the national average for full-time employees.

Next, it helps to recognize the difference between how an employer determines whether or not to offer paid vacation benefits to musician and administrator employees and if so, how many days.

  • Musician paid vacation days are determined by way of collective bargaining and are the direct result of those efforts, consequently, they only apply to employees that are a part of that bargaining unit.
  • It is typical for all musician employees to receive the same paid vacation days, regardless of how many years’ service they have with the ensemble.
  • Staff paid vacation days are determined by what the employer wishes to offer and they follow a traditional seniority scale formula.
  • Much like health care benefits, employers are under no obligation to offer the same health care benefits to both union and non-union employees.

It’s All About Dollars And Cents, But Not In The Way You Might Think

Perhaps unsurprisingly, orchestral employers determine paid vacation benefits based on internal cost analysis. But unlike a benefit such as health care where the benefit’s expense drives decisions on which plans to offer, the prevailing factor becomes how much an orchestra can save by offering more than the national average.

On the surface, that may seem counterintuitive but the key bit of knowledge here is most professional orchestras don’t cover the expense of a typical masterworks style concert series by earned income alone (ticket sales). Consequently, the remaining costs are covered by a series of unearned income sources such as sponsorships, investment income, and donations.

There’s nothing to be alarmed at with this scenario; in fact, it’s the way most nonprofit performing arts organizations operated for more than half a century.

But this earned vs. unearned income gap becomes a crucial variable when an employer determines how much paid vacation time to offer; this is doubly so in the case of 52-week orchestras.

Simply put, after a certain point, it costs the employer less to pay musicians for not playing.

This is why most 52-week orchestras offer musicians as much as four times the number of paid vacation days over and above the national average.

Among orchestras where the 52-week season status rises to the level of becoming a labor dispute trigger, most orchestral employers attempt to identify a sweet spot between how many weeks of active concert events they can sell to generate target earned income goals and when that becomes too much of a negative return. Once that is determined, any days past that threshold are offered up as a paid vacation benefit.

How All Of This Plays Out In The Post Economic Downturn Environment

Up until the economic downturn, employer and musician employee stakeholders have been happy to accept this arrangement. Granted, it isn’t something either side readily admits in a public forum, but this is the way it works.

But once the economic downturn hit, both stakeholders turned to this pool of paid vacation days as an initial source to reduce the sting of annual deficit driven austerity measures. The most typical byproduct came in the form of unpaid furlough days, which usually ended up being deducted from the paid vacation day pool.

As time continued, how well an organization navigated financial challenges was directly related to any exacerbated labor tension over whether or not those furlough days should become permanent.

This is where many orchestras with 40 to 52 week seasons are today, some have little to no conflict whereas others have seen increased sparring. But the real fireworks erupt when an employer seeks to convert temporary furlough days into a permanent reduction of paid vacation days, thereby triggering a loss of 52-week status.

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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4 thoughts on “Unraveling The Mystery Of Paid Vacation Weeks”

  1. Interesting topic Drew. Thanks for posting.

    With the larger orchestras, it may also be worth considering what the costs of unemployment insurance claims would be if season were to be 48 weeks (or less) rather than the full 52 weeks and add that in the mix. For the large orchestras that have summer festival seasons (CSO, Cleveland, Boston, etc), that may be a factor.

    Also important points about these vacations weeks:
    > String players are more at risk to have health issues when playing year round so the vacations are important and reduce health insurance claims.
    > 52 weeks is important from a recruiting standpoint and getting the best players.
    > the concept of a 52 week season is not really that old (early 60’s I believe) and came as a byproduct of the post WWII economic expansion of the US economy and the Ford Foundation grants.


    • Those are very good observations Dileep, the unemployment insurance variable tends to come into play more at the lower end of the budget/length scale for groups who are either looking to implement vacation time or those with only one or two weeks.

      The issues surrounding musicians at higher risk for repetitive stress syndrome is another interesting element in that groups will address it in their own unique way. For example, some offer it to certain musicians as additional vacation days above and beyond the base minimum whereas others fold it into sick and/or personal days. In the end, it serves the same function but can be split up in these different directions.

      Fun Fact: musicians who negotiate individual agreements can work additional relief days into their terms. In fact, this isn’t uncommon among groups that do not have assistant/associate musicians for one or more wind sections.

      The recruitment factor is one that has less value as time marches on. Back when the gap between orchestras with 52-week seasons was much larger than it is today; it was certainly carried a great deal of weight. But now that there are nearly 20 symphonic orchestras with 52-week seasons which have substantial differences in base salary and benefits it is not quite such a clearly defined line. It becomes even cloudier when you compare groups that are within five percent base salary but have different number of weeks; for example, using the 13/14 season figures, Utah is a 52-week group with a base salary of $63,440 and 10 weeks paid vacation while San Diego is a 42-week group with a base salary of $61,824 and four weeks paid vacation.

      Why would either group have an edge over the other?

      You can complicate the matter even more by tossing in Atlanta to the mix; a group with a 42 week season, eight weeks vacation and a base salary of $71,256.

      Of all the traditional benchmarks for status, the 52-week marker is one that I doubt will go away any time soon, but it is far less cut and dry as it used to be. In fact, it makes me think that might be a good ancillary topic for a future post.

      • Drew, indeed, I was going to make an addition comment similar to what you have said regarding the element of base pay vs actual weeks. Thanks for pointing that out as it is important and in many cases creates equivalent situations but with different weeks of employment and vacations as you have noted. Dileep

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