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Indianapolis Symphony is nation’s only major orchestra to terminate health insurance for furloughed musicians

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) is the nation’s only major orchestra to terminate or suspend employer-sponsored health insurance for furloughed employees, according to a labor group representing more than 4,000 musicians.

ISO musicians were first furloughed as a result of the global pandemic in March. 

They returned for eight weeks beginning in April, after the orchestra received a loan through the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

Most employees accepted a 25% reduction in pay upon returning to work, according to Brian Smith, a double bassist and the orchestra committee chair. 

On June 7, at the conclusion of the eight-week period, musicians were furloughed again; the orchestra also initiated termination of employer-sponsored health care benefits.

“The only assistance management is offering towards health care is a one-time stipend for each musician, equal to roughly two weeks of COBRA coverage for the average ISO family plan,” Smith said. 

James Johnson, the ISO CEO, said management had offered musicians the option to extend their existing coverage during negotiations in April and early May.

“We offered to provide musicians with health insurance throughout the summer,” Johnson said Monday in a phone interview with News 8. “The musicians, instead of accepting that proposal, opted instead to receive an amount of cash equivalent to the health insurance premiums.”

The “entire body of musicians” voted to decline the offer and accept the final agreement, he added.

Musicians refuted the CEO’s claims and said the stipends they were offered were described as funds the orchestra had saved on summer artist contracts and other concert expenses, rather than an alternative to existing health care benefits.

“If I had the option to keep my health care, I would have kept it and I know every [ISO] musician that I’ve talked to would have kept it,” said Roger Roe, the ISO’s assistant principal oboist and English horn specialist. “That [offer] was never presented.”

Roe had planned on adding his husband, who recently retired from his teaching job but would not qualify for Medicare for several years, to his ISO-sponsored health insurance plan.

“What do we do? I guess we dip into our retirement savings to get a Marketplace plan,” Roe said. “It’s really disappointing to me, especially knowing that — as of the end of last fiscal year — the [orchestra’s] endowment was $97 million.”

Smith, whose daughter was covered by his employer-sponsored plan, fractured his elbow in a road cycling accident six weeks before the latest ISO furloughs.

“Now I’m paying for health coverage that’s more expensive and I’m paying out of pocket for my treatment,” he told News 8.

Smith’s monthly premium had increased by several hundred dollars; treatment for his arm injury would total nearly $3,000, he estimated.

Another ISO musician learned about the furloughs while her husband was battling COVID-19, colleagues said.

The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), which represents musicians from 52 orchestras nationwide, slammed the ISO’s handling of economic challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

“No other ICSOM orchestras have terminated health care,” ICSOM chairperson Meredith Snow said in an emailed statement to News 8. “What Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra management has done is unconscionable. Their disregard for the health and wellbeing of the orchestra musicians and their families — in the midst of a pandemic — is shameful.”

The ISO furloughs have no confirmed end date. The musicians’ labor agreement expires in September.