Washington lays off its orchestra without pay or health care

Washington lays off its orchestra without pay or health care


norman lebrecht

March 28, 2020

Musicians in the National Symphony Orchestra will stop being paid from April 3.

They heard by email that Kennedy Centrer president Deborah Rutter ‘informed us today that the last paycheck for all musicians and librarians will be April 3 and that we will not be paid again until the Center reopens.’

The news came hours after President Trump authorised a $25 million bailout for the Kennedy Center.

UPDATE: We hear the players’ health insurance will end on May 31…. in the thick of an epidemic.

Ms Rutter has told the Washington Post that she’s taking no pay. She has not communicated with the musicians.

The American Federation of Musicians has issued this statement:

on the same day that President Trump signed into law a stimulus package that specifically appropriated $25 million to the Kennedy Center to be used for operating expenses including employee compensation, Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter abruptly advised the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra that they will not be paid after next week.

This decision, from an organization with an endowment of nearly $100 million, is not only outrageous – coming after the musicians had expressed their willingness to discuss ways to accommodate the Kennedy Center during this challenging time – it is also blatantly illegal under the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. That agreement specifically requires that the Center provide six weeks’ notice before it can stop paying musicians for economic reasons.

The Metropolitan Washington D.C. Federation of Musicians, which represents the National Symphony Orchestra musicians, has filed a grievance challenging the Kennedy Center’s illegal action.



  • The View from America says:

    If the move is “blatantly illegal” under the collective bargaining agreement, then it won’t hold up in court. That’s the next move, obviously.

    But one might wonder if it actually is “blatant” — as surely management would have given that due consideration before making the decision on compensation.

    • Brettermeier says:

      “surely management would have given that due consideration before making the decision on compensation.”

      Aww, you’re adorable ! 😀

  • David Boxwell says:

    Ms. Rutter can remind us all how much was just spent to build “The Reach.”

  • Tamino says:

    lost for words.
    capitalism at its worst. eats its children.

    • Tom Powell says:

      Save that KC is the antithesis of capitalism, being 1) a non profit and 2) a ward of the federal state. The ward might indeed pass on some of that public money to be dispensed.

  • Alan says:

    Imagine living in a first world country where, even in the midst of a pandemic, you can be refused health care……..

    • PaulD says:

      Nobody is going to be refused healthcare. Anyone who goes to an ER in the United States must be cared for. That’s the law. The bill is settled later, if ever.

      • Alan says:

        There shouldn’t be a bill………

      • Bill says:

        Yeah, the bill for $ 100,000-$200,000 plus, and no insurance will pay if you were out of coverage when the treatment happened.

        And you won’t get the same attention you would get if you had insurance. Welcome to health care, American style.

      • Tamino says:

        oh the semantics, that mean the difference between personal bankruptcy or not.
        OK, you are not refused healthcare. You get healthcare. It just bankrupts you. No big deal then.

      • David b says:

        The right wing in America has this insane, idiotic notion that because the ER has to provide service, everybody therefore has health care. Just a little thought shows why that argument is moronic.

        Patient X goes to the ER with a painful lump in his armpit. The ER takes x-rays and maybe an MRI. “Hey Patient X, this looks like cancer. Please visit our oncology department on Monday. This is very treatable. Here’s some painkillers.” The ER has done what they’re required.

        Patient X goes to the oncology department Monday and gets refused service because he doesn’t have health insurance. “Sorry, nothing we can do.” The ER is required to care for patients. Not other departments. They can and do refuse treatment.

        Patient X’s cancer spreads and wrecks his body. Six months later he collapses and again is brought to the ER. They have to care for him. Unfortunately, there’s nothing they can do for him besides make his final moments on earth less painful.

        This is what the right wing idiocy, “Everybody can get healthcare. They just need to go to the ER” means.

      • Bill says:

        You must be examined and stabilized, but you don’t have to be cured. And nothing stops the hospital from charging you a crippling amount even for just that. They may not collect it, but it will be a financial millstone for the patient. Also, most ERs will treat anyone, but if you find one at a hospital that doesn’t accept Medicare or Medicaid, they are not required to do so.

        The lunacy or tying health insurance to employment as was done in the US and almost nowhere else will become very plain to see as the millions filing for unemployment start getting sick. And as uninsured care is so expensive (and most people don’t get unlimited sick leave, if any), there is a strong incentive for people to go to work sick instead of staying home and seeking care, most likely resulting in exactly the wrong thing from a public health standpoint. But hey, it’s the best health system in the world if cost is no object…

      • fflambeau says:

        PaulD: I doubt you ever went to an emergency room for treatment in the USA. The first thing they ask is if you have insurance; the second thing is what credit cards you have.

      • David Oberg says:

        ERs deal with life-threatening situations. Emergencies include cardiac arrest, heart attacks, physical trauma, mental illness situations, ODs, COPD, etc. With health crises such as these, a visit to the ER requires a trip via ambulance. (Let’s sincerely hope that the musicians of the NSO don’t face any of the aforementioned.)
        As stated by PaulD, ERs are required by federal law to provide care to all patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Since they can’t be turned away, patients without insurance, or the necessary funds to pay out-of-pocket costs, often utilize emergency rooms as their main health care provider. This puts tremendous strain on ERs and limits their ability to attend quickly to health emergencies.
        It is estimated that more than $18 billion could be saved annually if those patients whose medical problems are considered “avoidable” or “non-urgent” were to take advantage of primary or preventive health care and not rely on ERs for their medical needs.
        I’m not prepared to address urgent care or walk-in clinics.
        With the spread of Covid-19, all bets may be off as the medical community prepares to go on a “war-time footing.”
        (I’m not a provider but do work in the realm of healthcare students’ education. I also volunteer with a county behavioral health program.)

      • Barry Guerrero says:

        A “law” which could easily be revoked in today’s political climate. To put it in less subtle terms: Two patients show up at ER needing respirators. The hospital has only one respirator. Both patients are roughly the same age and in roughly the same physical shape. One patient has insurance and the other doesn’t. Guess which patient gets the respirator?

        • Bill says:

          In what way is the EMTALA a ‘“law” which could easily be revoked in today’s political climate’ unlike anything else? I can’t see the House voting to strip away that safety net, and I doubt the Senate would either. It’s not a regulation which can be changed at the whim of a cabinet secretary or the president.

      • I read about this says:

        There was a teenage in California that died from Coronavirus because he did not have health insurance.

      • Henry IV says:

        Sir, Concerning healthcare, among other things, The United States is an embarrassment to humanity. We can only hope that the coronavirus will bring a nation that has lost its moral and human compass back to earth, after the fiasco of how it takes care of its sick and weakest. That the “leader” of the NSO could even think, let alone tell the musicians, at this terrible time, that the medical coverage for them and their families will terminate in the middle of the worst and most dangerous global pandemic in 100 years is beyond immoral.
        We watch this in total and utter disbelief and are thankful not to be from or part of such an inhuman and heartless system.

  • Ron Swanson says:

    The Kennedy Centre’s running cost in 2003 was $118 million. The Endowment and the $25 million wouldn’t cover the current operating costs, especially since 6 months ago they opened a $250 million extension.

    • anon says:

      25m would pay all employee salaries for 4 months…

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Nevertheless, the endowment should be used in such an unprecedented emergency. Once (if) the good times return, an endowment campaign could refill that coffer. Paying musicians’ salaries should not not consume $100 million quickly, and with other Kennedy Center operations on hiatus, non-personnel expenses should be unusually low.

      It’s one thing for the musicians not to receive their salary — the new unemployment payments would keep them nearly whole for some time — but the loss of health benefits would be catastrophic to some (and not just because of coronavirus).

      Finally, the apparent callousness with which the layoff appears to have been conducted is, if appearances are accurate, inexcusable.

      • Ron Swanson says:

        Where is the money coming from to cover the cost covered by the endowment next year then. On 100 million you would expect roughly a $5 million a year income. By spending the entire endowment you leave a permanent black whole in funding. You are also assuming that the Kennedy centre can spend the endowment, it’s unlikely that they can get at the capital.

        • Peter San Diego says:

          Good points — but if the endowment is drawn down in the emergency, then it ought to be incumbent on the major donors to rebuild the endowment over time, after the emergency.

          I realize that “ought” is no guarantee, of course. I also realize the need for long-term fiscal prudence.

          However, I also realize that casting the musicians adrift and without health insurance (does the union provide a backup plan?) is callous, as is announcing the move without first informing the musicians (if that is indeed how it was done).

  • Bill says:

    Where are the Democrats in the Arts “hour of need”?

  • kundry says:

    Like many CEOs of US companies, Mrs.Rutter should:

    1. Immediately forgo her salary
    2. Keep the health insurance for all employees
    3. Present a restructuring business plan in line with the present situation and like many other medium companies, keep the employees on , at least, at 50% of their salaries.

    In addition , she should:

    4. Get the Board members to contribute to a bridge fund – either personally , or by bringing in new money from corporations and foundations.
    5. Resign if she is not able to behave in a responsible way professionally and humanely, as a colleague to the staff and artists of the KC.
    Trump and Pelosi just gave KC a special grant and they have some epic problems to solve. She should be able to solve only this one. It is not rocket science.
    The way she handled it so far is unacceptable from all points of view. The Board should ask for her resignation if she does not correct her position immediately.

    • Ron Swanson says:

      Gibberish, they looking at least $ 30million hole with a 3 month shutdown. Keeping everyone at 50% means you still have to 15 million

      • Peter San Diego says:

        How much would dropping salaries but retaining health insurance cost? Surely considerably less, and the extended unemployment benefits could keep the musicians afloat for a while.

    • MacroV says:

      Extraordinary. Surely the KC will be seeking you out as a new CEO, or maybe a consultant in light of this (in)valuable advice.

  • Willymh says:

    I’m just wondering how the orchestras et al at the Royal Opera and ENO are faring? We’ve seen no reports on them at all?

    • Ron Swanson says:

      They dont have to worry in the same way, Arts council funding will keep them going in the short term. The ENO’s future in the medium term isn’t good but that has been the case for a while. I doubt Arts funding will stay at the current level post crisis. I would rather more money went to organisations like the ETO than fund a second house in London. The more people that have the chance to see Opera the better.

      • WillymH says:

        So they are all being paid full salary?

        • Ron Swanson says:

          I as far as I know all full time staff have faced no cuts yet. I suspect the situation might change down the line depending how long everything is closed. Even then, full time and part time staff are guaranteed 80% of salary by the HMG. The big problem for the Arts is going to come later when all this will have to be paid for.

  • Fred Funk says:

    Every tenured musician in that orchestra, should be filing for unemployment on April 6th. To be followed with a labor law court filing. Take up a $100 @ head collection in the orchestra, and do it. Ms Rutter should start dating the CEO of the Baltimore Symphony. They have a lot in common.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    The Great Depression 2.0

  • AlanK says:

    Ritter has dumbed down the KC since the day she arrived. Not surprisingly she would cut off the NSO as her first economizing action. I

  • Ron Reuben says:

    “Fuck the Music Business.”

  • Skippy says:

    One wonders who’s next? What if this stretches on through the summer and into the fall?

  • Honest Abe says:

    Ms. Rutter just made a mockery of the arts in this country. The conservatives were angry at speaker Pelosi’s addition of $35 million to the CARES act for the Kennedy Center because it delayed voting on the bill. Ultimately a compromise was reached and all parties allowed $25 Million to be allotted for the Center including backing by both Pelosi and the president. Ms. Rutter didn’t even wait for the ink to dry. The Cares act is supposed to help people, the optics are abysmal.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I would not judge any institution in their decisions when we are living in unprecedented times. As one political commentator pointed out today, the current crisis is much worse than Great Depression. In those times when one went into the street, everything seemed relatively normal compared to today. So every institution is facing potential extinction, their decisions are understandable.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    There is an upside here for the Baltimore Symphony Musicians. According to online sources, their unemployment benefits will max out at $430 per week while the NSO will max out at $425 because they are in DC rather than Maryland. This may be the only time a BSO player makes more than an NSO player!

  • Marg says:

    Appalling. Thats all I can say. Appalling.

  • WillymH says:

    There seems to be the suggestion – both in the reporting and comments – on here that musicians should be exempted from the unprecedented measures that most businesses/institutes/companies have taken in the past few weeks. As much as I care for the music that is made and admire those that make it – orchestral, operatic, jazz, music theatre et al – they are being treated no differently than waiters, teachers, clerks, researchers, factory workers, shop keepers etc around the world. And we are being told of these events in quick internet bites often accompanied by pithy headlines (as an example the Paris Opera Rheingold item) meant to get us reading.

    Again I somehow doubt that the administrators making these decisions are rubbing their hands in glee as they turn employees out into the streets. And I don’t believe any General Manager of an arts organization or CEO of a firm has made these decisions on their own without some type of consultation.

  • Mark Tetreault says:

    Rutter is a fucking disgrace.

  • MacroV says:

    It is reasonable to ask what the $25 million is going to be used for if not to support the NSO musicians and other KC employees. But assume this isn’t just Rutter’s whim, rather the result of a long process of analysis and discussion.

    And I’m surprised the KC endowment is only $100 million; there are a number of U.S. orchestras (even St. Louis, which 20 years ago was in dire straits) with endowments over $200 million, and the MET’s is over $300 million.

  • John says:

    From a public media perspective, this looks horrendous, take in 25 million and then stop paying the employees after. At the same time, one must realize that there is no revenue coming in the door. There are many other retail and other jobs that are in a similar situation.

    Not sure how the endowment situation is at NSO, but before the coronavirus many orchestras were already in somewhat dire straits financially. Now there is no revenue coming in and their total endowment amount probably also went down by a significant amount due to the severe downturn in stock market.

    I believe the passage of the law will probably lead to more people getting canned in the short run. What the leadership probably saw was with the passage of the coronavirus law, unemployment plus the federal grant of 600 dollars a week will likely give a majority of people pro-rated salary amount of somewhere between 45-50k. For the orchestra members, this is likely the same as getting paid 30-50% of their salary. For the other staff, this amount is likely 80-100% of their full salary. Keep in mind that the orchestra is getting close to 0 income right now and the unemployment benefits described above come at nearly a 0 cost to the orchestra.

    In sum, it costs the orchestra 100% for all orchestra members/staff to get paid 100% of their salary and benefits. With the recent unemployment benefits, it will cost the orchestra 0 for the members and the staff to get somewhere between 50% and 75% of their salaries for the short run.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Understood, but what about the cutoff of health insurance? Does the musicians’ union provide a backup plan?

  • Tamino says:

    Is the Music Director (Gianandrea Noseda?) also fired?