Pay Scales 

Analysis: Unemployment benefits for symphony musicians: Whose burden are they?

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You want to work all year long, but your boss says the company doesn't have the resources to drum up business during the summer. So it's "So long!" till September.

Usually you can make your savings last through the 14-week labor purgatory, but it's nice to know you could collect unemployment if you needed to.

If you're a symphony musician, however, you might not have that option any longer.

Delegate G. Manoli Loupassi has introduced a bill that would prohibit symphony musicians in Virginia from collecting unemployment benefits during the time they're off-contract in the summer.

Having about one-quarter of the orchestra's 70 musicians collect unemployment "is a significant financial burden on both [the Richmond Symphony and the Virginia Symphony]," Richmond Symphony Executive Director David Fisk is quoted as saying in a pair of Richmond Times-Dispatch articles dated Jan. 23 and 24. Because the symphony recently entered into scheduled contract negotiations with the musicians' union, officials at the symphony decline further comment for this story.

Employers who have high rates of unemployment claims must pay a higher percentage of payroll taxes into the unemployment insurance system. The Richmond Symphony pays about $70,000 annually in benefits, according to Fisk.

A memo from the Richmond Symphony's board president, John Braymer, to musicians, sent Jan. 28, reveals that the board approached legislators with a request to "review the unemployment issue" as a specific cost-cutting measure for the symphony, which wants to trim $350,000 from operating costs.

Whatever you think about symphony musicians collecting unemployment during the summer, the question remains whether on-demand legislative tinkering with Virginia's unemployment system at this level of specificity is a tenable use of time and resources. Especially considering that this matter has been put to legal rest: A Virginia Employment Commission case in 1986, Brown v. Richmond Symphony, settled in favor of the musician's right to receive unemployment pay.

Another, perhaps bigger, question is why the Richmond Symphony's top-level administrator would go on record with a statement that appears so unsupportive of his co-workers — or, put another way, the musicians who make his job possible.

Some background information:

• The base salary of 53 percent of Richmond Symphony musicians is a little less than $33,000 ($44,000 for section leaders) for a 38-week season. The other 47 percent are paid on a per-service basis, with guaranteed annual earnings of about $4,000 to $16,000, depending on the level of their contractual agreement.

• A 38-week season and the balance of core and per-service musicians are typical for orchestras of this budget size.

• The median household income for the Richmond-Petersburg Metropolitan Statistical Area is $46,800.

Among peer orchestras, the Richmond Symphony is near the top in base musician wages, and the gap between musicians' pay and the executive director's pay is smaller than many.

Still, Fisk's characterization of unemployment compensation as a "significant financial burden" seems out of tune. The director, who makes $107,000 a year, probably didn't intend to sound as if he were pointing fingers, but his remarks show a lack of recognition that musicians may have an additional burden: paying off hefty student loans (advanced performance degrees essentially are required for employment in professional orchestras) or supporting a family on $33,000 a year.

In any case, the financial burden on the orchestra must be much less than if the organization offered increased pay to musicians for a full 52-week contract.

Musicians who collect unemployment benefits during the summer may use the money to pay rent, maintain and repair their instruments, or eat out in fancy restaurants and renew yacht club memberships. There's no way to know in every case. But it's certain that of the few summer earning opportunities for individual professional musicians in Richmond — people who must spend hours a day practicing whether or not they have a job — most of them bring in insignificant and erratic income.

On the other hand, the Richmond Symphony as a whole is developing partnerships with community organizations, other arts entities, schools and businesses in greater Richmond. It isn't outrageous to imagine full-year contracts for musicians as a result of increased emphasis on such partnerships.

That the symphony board got Loupassi to sponsor this bill more than a week before it officially notified the full orchestra of its actions is the most disturbing evidence that it's deliberately perpetuating the illusion of two antagonistic organizations: the board and the musicians.

This is a destructive myth. There is one orchestra, and the fiscal health of its parts is essential to the fiscal health of the whole. In his letter, Braymer writes that the board doesn't want to "have a public war of words."

Good. Now, take this time to listen: to musicians, to development and education staff members, and to everyone who shares the burden of financial challenges.

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