Kennedy Center drops furlough of musicians as they accept pay cuts

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Kennedy Center drops furlough of musicians as they accept pay cuts
A section of the Reach, designed by Steven Holl Architects, the Kennedy Center’s first expansion in its nearly half-century history. Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The National Symphony Orchestra’s musicians will be receiving pay cuts, but will not be furloughed, under a new deal worked out between their union and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where they perform.

The Kennedy Center had planned to furlough the musicians for an undetermined time so as to address the financial shortfalls from the coronavirus pandemic, which has closed the performing arts center. The announcement had caused a political uproar, largely because the center had received $25 million in emergency funding as part of the recently enacted stimulus package.

But in the agreement announced Tuesday with the D.C. Federation of Musicians, the orchestra — which includes 96 musicians and two orchestra librarians — would see pay cuts amounting to 35% of the total payroll until early September. The union had said the furloughs violated their collective bargaining agreement.

In the days following the furlough announcement, some Republicans lawmakers had gone so far as to press for legislation to revoke the $25 million, arguing that the center should not need to furlough workers after such a bailout.

The Kennedy Center, which was established as the National Cultural Center in legislation passed by Congress in 1958, asserted that, even with the federal funding, it could run out of cash as soon as July. Hundreds of its employees — including those working in concessions, parking and retail — have already been furloughed to save money while the center is dark.

The musicians union said in a statement Tuesday that to help ameliorate the strain on the center, it had agreed to make some concessions in its collective bargaining agreement. Those include a wage freeze in the 2020-21 season and delayed wage increases for the rest of the contract, the Kennedy Center said.

In total, the center said that the wage cuts and economic concessions will save $4 million.

Some staff at the National Symphony Orchestra who are not unionized will remain furloughed. A statement from the orchestra said that musicians had pledged at least $50,000 of their own money to help those staffers. The musicians urged the center to bring back those staffers to assist the orchestra in finding ways to bring music to the public right now.

“We need their talents to help start new musical projects to present to our patrons and the larger world,” the orchestra’s statement said.

The financial struggles at the Kennedy Center reflect what’s happening at cultural institutions of all sizes across the country, as all live arts programming has been canceled or postponed because of the pandemic. Artist unions have mobilized to try to ensure that actors, dancers, musicians and other kinds of arts workers won’t be left entirely without pay or health benefits during the national crisis.

In the face of criticism from conservative lawmakers, the Kennedy Center has defended its need for the federal funding, promising that the majority of the money — $22 million out of $25 million — has been designated for employee compensation, benefits and artist contracts and fees. The center says it is maintaining full health care benefits for its furloughed employees.

The center is in discussions with the musicians of the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra about how they will be compensated during the crisis.

Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, said in a statement that she is grateful that the National Symphony Orchestra and the center “have found a way forward.”

Rutter said in a tweet last month that she would be forgoing her own salary during the crisis.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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