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BSO offers musicians health insurance extension amid contract dispute

BSO offers musicians health insurance extension amid contract dispute
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians walk the picket line outside the Meyerhoff Monday morning. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra extended an olive branch Thursday to its musicians amid a bitter labor dispute. The organization announced it would continue providing medical and dental benefits that had been scheduled to expire Monday.

“Through generous contributions from members of the BSO Board of Directors and other loyal donors from our Baltimore and Montgomery County communities, medical and dental benefits will be provided for BSO musicians throughout the lockout during the months of July and August 2019,” symphony President and CEO Peter Kjome wrote in a news release.

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The donors were not named; Kjome said said they wish to remain anonymous.

“Providing our musicians with healthcare during the summer months as contract negotiations continue is being done because it’s the right thing to do, he wrote in an email. “We care very deeply about our musicians and have been working to provide them with a continuation of their healthcare benefits during this challenging time.”

The musicians said they appreciate the gesture, but noted that they’re still locked out of Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Most musicians received their last paycheck for the summer on June 14, after being locked out by the BSO amid deep funding shortfalls.

“We are grateful for this change of heart,” said Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the Players Committee, which represents the 76 musicians.

“It’s a relief to see leadership begin to understand how this lack of concern for the welfare of their employees is inhumane. However let’s not forget that the artists that create the music are still locked out without a paycheck instead of on the stage, unsure of their ability to support their families.”

The musicians and BSO management are attempting to negotiate a new labor contract; their most recent agreement expired in January. The chief obstacle is the proposal initially made last fall by Kjome and the board to shorten the season from 52 to 40 weeks — along with an approximately 20 percent pay cut. Kjome said a reduced season is necessary to guaranty the organization’s financial stability. He said the BSO has incurred $16 million of losses over the past decade.

A bargaining session last Friday that was attended by mediators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service ended without apparent progress. Prechtl said both sides hope to schedule another session next week.

Kjome indicated in the email that the lockout will end one way or another in a little more than 10 weeks. Symphony expects to have the money to pay for performances and rehearsals shortly after the BSO’s new fiscal year begins Sept. 1.

“If an agreement has not been reached by Sunday, September 8, 2019, the BSO will terminate the lockout on Monday, September 9, 2019,” Kjome wrote. “Work will be provided to bargaining unit employees beginning on that date.”

In addition to the health insurance, the BSO said the musicians’ life insurance will continue uninterrupted until it renews on Sept. 1. The BSO said it also “is working with its long-term disability insurance provider in an attempt to extend coverage during the lockout, and musicians already on long-term disability will continue to receive those benefits.”

Trumpet player Matthew Barker said that the restoration of benefits came as a welcome bit of news for him and his schoolteacher wife. The couple are expecting their first child, a boy, in September. But the respite, he said, was short-lived.

“My wife and I breathed a sight of relief when we heard that benefits were being restored,” he said. “but then it's like, ‘O.K., we're back in the game,’

“We’re maybe five percent less distressed today than we were yesterday. We’re still scrambling to support our families. We’re still locked out and without any end in sight.”

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