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Pandemic woes: Symphony musicians are out of work and lacking health insurance coverage

Indianapolis Star logo Indianapolis Star 6 days ago David Lindquist, Indianapolis Star
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Furloughed for a second time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra say management is too quiet when it comes to sharing plans for the future.

But there’s noisy dissonance when each side talks about health insurance coverage for the musicians.

Representatives of the musicians’ union said the orchestra terminated employer-provided health insurance for the musicians when a current furlough began June 7.

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“We’re the only orchestra in the country that lost our health care as a result of the second furlough, which is a difficult pill to swallow,” said Brian Smith, a double bass player and chair of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Committee.

James Johnson, the orchestra’s CEO, said the musicians are enduring a summer without health insurance because they chose to accept an earlier series of cash payments rather than coverage. Johnson said the orchestra told the musicians that no performances would happen through August, and union members voted in favor of the payments and to forgo insurance coverage.

a person wearing a suit and tie: Musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra are being furloughed for a second time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. © Matt Detrich/IndyStar Musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra are being furloughed for a second time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was not our intention, by any means, to deprive our musicians of health insurance during this time,” Johnson said. “Instead, they opted to receive cash payments.”

ISO staff members and stagehands are receiving health insurance coverage while being furloughed, and Johnson said the musicians could have been in the same situation.

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: James Johnson has served as CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra since 2018. © File photo James Johnson has served as CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra since 2018.

The musicians dispute Johnson's assertion.

"At no point did the ISO make any proposal to our representatives that included an offer to maintain health insurance coverage for the musicians after June 7," Smith said.

Smith said each musician received a one-time stipend of $1,800, "equal to roughly two weeks" of COBRA premium payments for an out-of-work individual seeking health insurance coverage for a family.

The musicians’ labor agreement expires Sept. 6. The next performance on the ISO calendar is Sept. 18, when acrobats are scheduled to accompany the orchestra for a performance titled "Cirque Encore" at Hilbert Circle Theatre.

Johnson said there's no plan to postpone or cancel that performance, but he concedes he's not sure what it will look like.

"We’re assembling a thorough study of how we would gather in socially distanced times," Johnson said. "This is not a cookie-cutter solution. It has to be carefully researched."

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Communication breakdown

Johnson said he wants "to begin discussions with the musicians very soon to work with them on our plans for how we can re-emerge and serve our public."

Smith said that type of chat is overdue.

"We have repeatedly asked for conversations with our management about ways to collaborate and innovate during the time of isolation that we’re all dealing with. To meet the demands and needs of our patrons, our sponsors, our donors, in every way we can," Smith said. "But every time we’ve offered to do that and have discussions about it, we have been ignored, frankly."

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In addition to social distancing as a hurdle, the musicians have been out of work during the pandemic. A two-week furlough began March 27 and ended when the orchestra received a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the CARES Act and brought the musicians back with a 25% reduction in pay.

The current furlough is open-ended. "One of the difficulties about all this is just not knowing how long this is going to go on," Smith said.

Johnson said the senior management team had weekly meetings with the musicians when they were working.

"Clearly, this time is very challenging because we’re all socially distanced," Johnson said. "Their concerns are certainly well placed as to how the orchestra is going to emerge from this pandemic."

There's money, but not to spend

Johnson said the orchestra is struggling financially because of canceled events and nonexistent ticket sales.

"The challenge for the ISO is really daunting," he said. "I have a feeling we will be feeling the impact of this for years to come."

One source of funding for the orchestra is its endowment, which is managed by an independent nonprofit known as the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Foundation.

Johnson said the endowment's current value is less than $90 million, reminiscent of a dip to $85.8 million attributed to the 2008 recession. The endowment's value has climbed to as high as $130 million in recent years.

Roger Roe, who plays the oboe in the orchestra, said he believes current conditions warrant an emergency draw of endowment funds.

"Isn’t this a rainy day?" Roe asked.

Johnson said the foundation already contributed an additional $1.85 million to the orchestra beyond its traditional annual gift of 5% of the endowment's value this year.

"The directors of the foundation informed us they would be unable to make additional contributions at this time, because they’re concerned about preserving the value of the endowment for future generations," Johnson said.

Pointing toward fall

Cost-cutting at the orchestra could be seen in April layoffs of nearly half of the administrative staff. Twenty-nine employees exited; 31 remain.

"We’ve had to make very difficult decisions with respect to staff and compensation," Johnson said.

Oboe player Roe, who also teaches at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, said the clock is ticking toward September and the planned reopening of Hilbert Circle Theatre.

"Looking at IU, it’s a really good example of an institution that’s making plans for this fall, as best as they can," Roe said of the school, which will welcome students back to all of its campuses in August. "Other orchestras around the county are doing the same thing."

Locally, the Carmel Symphony Orchestra announced it will come back with an Oct. 10 performance at the Palladium. The Indianapolis Opera will return to action Sept. 11 at Garfield Park's MacAllister Amphitheater.

Double bass player Smith expressed optimism for an ISO comeback. 

"There’s still time to solve this problem, if we can get on board together," he said. "We can do it collaboratively."

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Contact IndyStar reporter David Lindquist at dave.lindquist@indystar.com or 317-444-6404. Follow him on Twitter: @317Lindquist.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pandemic woes: Symphony musicians are out of work and lacking health insurance coverage

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