Orchestras and Unemployment

House Bill 1254, which would have prevented symphony musicians from receiving unemployment benefits “between successive orchestra seasons,” has been dropped for now. My Style Weekly commentary piece on the issue hit stands the same day as the legislative continuance.

Contract negotiations between the union and the symphony organization, of course, are still in full swing. Adaptistration, a blog by arts consultant Drew McManus, has extensive coverage of the legislative issue, the board’s letter to musicians, the conflict it engendered, and the prospects for contract negotiations.

There’s a lot of confusion about where unemployment benefits come from and how they affect employers. This is understandable, because it’s a confusing system, and slightly different from state to state. I don’t have all the information myself, but I know the biggest misconception is that taxes are taken out of employees’ paychecks to fund unemployment benefits. This is not true. Employers pay into the system.

Many people also don’t know–as I didn’t, until two weeks ago–that the rate at which employers pay unemployment taxes is based on unemployment claims filed by their former employees over the past four years. Employers who have more claims pay a higher tax rate –this is meant as incentive for employers to avoid layoffs. So the stakes for employers involve not just dollars paid out in claims but the amount they pay into the system.

If I’ve mischaracterized this, please let me know.

However, an equally pervasive misconception seems to be that orchestras inherently have “seasons.” This is not true. If an orchestra doesn’t perform concerts or contract musicians during the summer (or any time), it isn’t because music can’t be performed in the summer, it is because the orchestral organization has chosen not to use its resources to create performance and education opportunities during the summer.

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