Kennedy Center Finally Agrees To Pay Musicians After Backlash Over Receiving Millions in Coronavirus Relief


Caving to immense public pressure, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts agreed Tuesday to continue paying National Symphony Orchestra musicians amid the coronavirus-related closures of all non-essential businesses.

The agreement comes little more than one week after the organization signaled widespread payment reductions, budget freezes and layoffs, despite having received $25 million in emergency funding from the recently passed CARES Act — a historic $2.2 trillion economic relief package signed into law by President Donald Trump on Mar. 27.

According to a Kennedy Center news release, the deal, reached after “several days of collaborative discussions” with union members at the District of Columbia Federation of Musicians, will see orchestra members taking a 35 percent pay cut for the next six months along with a delay of a planned pay increase and a total wage freeze in the coming performance season in order to avoid unpaid furloughs.

Making out on the deal with roughly $4 million in payroll and other savings, the Kennedy Center will not, however, resume payment of recently furloughed non-union workers, The Washington Free Beacon reported. Instead, those employees will be paid, in part, using $50,000 from pockets of union members for 10 weeks.

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Officially closed from Mar. 13 to May 10, the Kennedy Center notified musicians of its initial payment freeze plan just hours after the president signed the CARES Act, according to a previous report from the Free Beacon, suggesting employees’ last check for the foreseeable future would arrive on Apr. 3.

The announcement signaled a breach of both contract and federal labor law, coming not six weeks, but one week prior to the proposed payment freeze. A grievance, later rescinded as a result of Tuesday’s agreement, was immediately filed.

“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 read.

“There is no provision in our collective bargaining agreement that allows the Kennedy Center to decide to stop paying us with only one week of notice,” union members later told the outlet.

“In recognition of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kennedy Center,” however, members were willing to make “substantial economic concessions” Tuesday, despite standing firm on allegations that the organization’s initial payment freeze had been illegal.

The Kennedy Center, for its part, said in public statements that the initial decision had not been made lightly, coming amid unprecedented circumstances it claimed could put the institution in the red.

“It is imperative that we scale back the entire institution’s personnel costs during this time of closure and dearth of ticket income,” Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter said. “If no changes are made to our spending patterns, even if we are able to open in mid-May, with the recent $25 million federal stimulus funding, the Kennedy Center would run out of cash as early as July.”

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Unlike the organization’s musicians, however, conservatives on the Hill did not seem to find the defense sympathetic.

Having benefited greatly from the CARES Act — and operating on a nearly $100 million endowment, according to The Washington Post — some argue the Kennedy Center’s recent layoffs and payment decisions have been underhanded and disrespectful to the American taxpayer.

Do you think the Kennedy Center should have received emergency relief funding to begin with?

Republican Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin announced last week that he would introduce a bill to rescind the organization’s $25 million CARES Act relief funding over the move.

“This money should be spent fighting the virus or in taxpayers’ pockets!” Steil wrote on Twitter.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise later told Fox News host Sean Hannity he would support the legislative effort, having never supported pandemic relief aid to federal arts organizations and programs to begin with.

“Nancy Pelosi literally held the bill up for days to get her pet projects, including the money for the Kennedy Center,” Scalise said. “Interesting she’d use the choice of words ‘fiddlers’ because it was the fiddlers, the violin players, all the musicians at the Kennedy Center that got laid off right as the bill got signed.”

“They ought to give that money back,” he added.

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Andrew J. Sciascia was the supervising editor of features at The Western Journal. Having joined up as a regular contributor of opinion in 2018, he went on to cover the Barrett confirmation and 2020 presidential election for the outlet, regularly co-hosting its video podcast, "WJ Live," as well.
Andrew J. Sciascia was the supervising editor of features at The Western Journal and regularly co-hosted the outlet's video podcast, "WJ Live."

Sciascia first joined up with The Western Journal as a regular contributor of opinion in 2018, before graduating with a degree in criminal justice and political science from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and worked briefly as a political operative with the Massachusetts Republican Party.

He covered the Barrett confirmation and 2020 presidential election for The Western Journal. His work has also appeared in The Daily Caller.