The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts informed members of the National Symphony Orchestra that they would no longer be paid just hours after President Trump signed a $25 million taxpayer bailout for the cultural center, according to an email obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
Nearly 100 musicians will no longer receive paychecks after April 3, according to an email from the orchestra's Covid-19 Advisory Committee.
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"The Covid-19 Advisory Committee was broadsided today during our conversation with [Kennedy Center President] Deborah Rutter," the email says. "Ms. Rutter abruptly 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 email went out to members on Friday evening, shortly after President Trump signed the $2 trillion CARES Act, a stimulus package intended to provide relief to people left unemployed by the coronavirus pandemic. Congress included $25 million in taxpayer funding for the Kennedy Center, a provision that raised eyebrows from both Democrats and Republicans, but ultimately won support from President Trump. The bailout was designed to "cover operating expenses required to ensure the continuity of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and its affiliates, including for employee compensation and benefits, grants, contracts, payments for rent or utilities, fees for artists or performers," according to the law's text. The arts organization decided that the relief did not extend to members of the National Symphony Orchestra, its house orchestra.
"Everyone should proceed as if their last paycheck will be April 3," the email says. "We understand this will come [as a] shock to all of you, as it did to us."
The Kennedy Center did not return request for comment.
A veteran member of the orchestra, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, told the Washington Free Beacon that the decision "blindsided" musicians. The member welcomed the bailout package as necessary funding for the arts, but was stunned that it would not be used to cover payment for the artists.
"It's very disappointing [that] they're going to get that money and then drop us afterward," the musician said. "The Kennedy Center blindsided us."
The Kennedy Center, which recently completed a $250 million renovation, received $41 million from taxpayers in 2019, but faced massive deficits after shutting its doors on March 12 due to the coronavirus outbreak. President Rutter went on a media blitz to highlight the cultural hub's struggles, telling the Washington Post that she would forego her $1.2 million salary during the closure. Members of the orchestra chafed at the notion that they should do the same—particularly because they also face the prospect of losing their health benefits after May 31.
Orchestra members are challenging the Kennedy Center over its handling of the outbreak. The orchestra is only a few months into a four-year collective bargaining agreement it signed in September 2019. The orchestra filed a grievance, released Saturday, saying that the center violated the contract, which stipulates that artists be given at least six-weeks notice before paychecks can stop.
"While the Union understands that the Kennedy Center has decided to cancel all performances through May 10, 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those cancellations do not give the Association any contractual basis for failing to comply with the sections of the [agreement]," the grievance says.*
While orchestra members are confident in their case, committee members said the decision would not likely come for at least two weeks.
"There is no provision of our collective bargaining agreement that allows the Kennedy Center to decide to stop paying us with only one week of notice," the email says. "While we fully expect that an arbitrator would agree that management violated the CBA and that we are entitled to continued salary and benefits, this process takes time."
The Kennedy Center is scheduled to reopen on May 10, though it can continue spending stimulus funds through September 2021.
*Update: This piece has been updated with a quote from the grievance