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Met Opera seeks pay cuts in exchange for pandemic paychecks
Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, at a rehearsal for "Otello" at the opera house in New York, Sept. 10, 2015. The Met has offered to start paying many employees who have been furloughed without pay since April up to $1,500 a week in exchange for new union contracts that include long-term pay cuts, Gelb said in a meeting with staff on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Metropolitan Opera has offered to start paying many employees who have been furloughed without pay since April up to $1,500 a week in exchange for new union contracts that include long-term pay cuts, the company’s general manager said in a meeting with staff Friday.

Two months after announcing that the curtains would not part again until fall 2021, the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said in a video call with Met employees that the company was willing to cut a deal with unions that would mean their members would receive partial paychecks for the duration of the pandemic. The catch: Employees would have to agree to a 30% cut in pay, half of which would be restored once the Met’s box office returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Gelb predicted that even after the pandemic subsided, ticket sales would be depressed for several years, citing a recent study that said New York City was not likely to reach its pre-pandemic tourism levels until 2025. Another factor that he cited is that the Met’s audience leans older, meaning they may be more reluctant to return to the 3,800-seat opera house.

“For the Met to get back on its feet, we’re all going to have to make financial concessions and sacrifices,” Gelb said in the Zoom call, which was viewed live by more than 500 people.

Roughly 1,000 full-time Met employees, including members of the orchestra and chorus, have been furloughed without pay since April. For many, it will be tempting to start receiving paychecks again, which would amount to 70% of their base salaries and would be capped at $1,500 a week.

But the unions would have to agree to new contracts that would reduce their workers’ take-home pay, which is often significantly more than their base salaries, by 30%, mostly through a series of changes to work rules.

The unions that work with the Met are against making such significant concessions that could affect workers long after the most severe impacts of the pandemic subside, and have accused management of taking advantage of the outbreak in order to get them to agree to cost-cutting measures.

“The Met’s opportunistic approach seeks to permanently gut our contract way beyond the end of this crisis,” Len Egert, the executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents the company’s choristers, stage directors and dancers, said in a statement Friday.

Egert said that his union members “have no interest in selling out their future for short-term relief.”

The pandemic has severely strained arts institutions across the country, and even the Met, the nation’s largest performing arts organization, has not been spared. The Met’s finances were perilous even before the virus struck: Its annual budget is $300 million, and it earns less than a third of that through box-office sales, leaving it heavily reliant on donors. The company has lost more than $150 million because of the shutdown, and its announcement in September that it was canceling its entire 2020-21 season signaled that the losses were only just beginning.

A Met spokeswoman declined to say what kind of changes to work rules were under discussion because the company is in the middle of union negotiations.

Part of union opposition to the requested concessions is that half of the salary cuts will be restored only when the box office recovers, which could easily take years.

The Met’s box office was projected to make $88 million in the 2019-20 season before it was cut short by the pandemic, Gelb said, and the company projects that its next season starting in the fall of 2021 will take in only about $49 million. Under his proposal, even when the box-office sales recover, employees would still be paid 15% less than they were before the pandemic struck.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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