As the San Francisco Opera goes dark at the end of the year, many tenured members of the orchestra, chorus, and ballet are technically laid off. A loophole in California law allows these artists to claim unemployment insurance payments. Labor law and benefits, created for office and factory workers, poorly fit performing arts; some of the greatest abuses and shortfalls occur in the area of unemployment benefits.
Like teachers who have similar seasonal employment patterns and a tenure system, SF Opera artists continue to receive generous health insurance and other benefits during the “layoff period.” Teachers, however, are excluded by law from claiming unemployment. With comfortable annual salaries, guaranteed employment for life, and three weeks of paid vacation, there is no reason for the overstretched unemployment system to extend benefits for these performers. Furthermore, the high rate of claims on the San Francisco Opera (and similar organizations like the SF Ballet) forces the Opera to use its donors’ money to pay higher unemployment insurance taxes than other employers – up to 6.2% of salaries.
For part-time regional orchestras, the situation is the opposite. These ensembles have to pay into the unemployment system for hiring players who will never qualify for benefits because of their extra or part time status. Where does this money go? To subsidize the unemployment claims of tenured SF Opera musicians.