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Redefining the relationship of artists and unemployment compensation

Artists have a love-hate relationship with unemployment compensation. They love the opportunity to receive benefits while not having to work at a full-time job often unrelated to their artistic goals. They hate being without work in their profession, though the competition for jobs makes that problem frequent.

However, the government has usually been less than enthusiastic about paying benefits to a group it believes to be voluntarily unemployed and not entitled to the same provisions as, for instance, a laid-off automobile worker.

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A presidential commission on unemployment compensation recently released a preliminary report recommending standardized benefit payments and eligibility -- now determined by each state -- and making sure such groups as migrant workers, teachers, and artists are included. These groups have usually stood on the fringe of the labor force.

Unemployment insurance has proved to be somewhat of a staple for the existence of the visual and performing arts. According to a spokeswoman for the Screen Actors Guild, "probably 90 percent of the guild's 46,000 members have been on unemployment at one time or another." She added that "if there was no unemployment compensation, there might not be much theater."

The current Screen Actors Guild strike against the television networks -- based on the demand for royalties for productions sold to cable stations -- has tended to obscure the fact that the median income for all actors is $8,500, almost $3,000 less than the median income for all US workers.

For visual artists, the situation is even more severe, with the median income for painters and sculptors coming to less than $7,000 (based on Census Bureau findings).

Finding additional forms of support has become to the arts what the fourth wall is to architecture, and artists and arts groups spend considerable time applying for grants from a variety of government and private sources.

Increasingly, artists are looking toward areas in the government for funding and grants. One reason is that outlays from private foundations have been on the wane for the past 10 years, largely due to their income being derived from stock market investments which have not proved particularly lucrative.

At the federal government level, a host of agencies have something to do with the arts. The National Endowment for the Arts, with a $154.7 million budget, is an obvious place to go, but other agencies such as the Department of Labor (which has hired between 7,000 and 10,000 artists since 1973 through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act [CETA]), the General Services Administration (which commissions works of art for public buildings), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which provides grants for neighborhood renovation) and the Small Business Administration (which has sponsored a series of seminars for artists on fundraising and marketing over the past year) also get into the picture.

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Many in the arts, and especially in the performing arts, have spent considerable time examining the unemployment compensation system to find ways in which it could serve the needs of artists.

The unemployment insurance system is run at the state level according to the guidelines each state sets. Eligibility for benefits, the amount of money to which a claimant is entitled, and the length of time for which one may receive unemployment compensation vary widely from one state to the next. This creates a tremendous hodgepodge system nationwide.

The National Commission on Unemployment Compensation was established three years ago to examine the unemployment system which is currently $13 billion in debt. Much of that debt was incurred during the 1974-75 recession and it may be increased during the current recession. At present, almost 4 million nationwide are drawing unemployment benefits, although the amounts vary widely from state to state. The amount of benefits ranges greatly -- from a maximum of $90 a week in Mississippi to $197 in Massachusetts -- and the way in which the states finance their systems also varies. When a state's funding runs out, it borrows from the federal government.

The commission would greatly revamp the unemployment compensation system by increasing the role of the federal government in payments and establishing eligibility. The commission would also increase the amount and duration of benefits paid.

There are two basic kinds of systems which states use to establish eligibility for benefits -- with extensive variations on both. In California, benefits and eligibility are determined on a "high quarter" system. Under this procedure, the calendar year is divided into four fiscal quarters, and benefits are figured according to the largest amount earned in any of those four quarters. A sliding scale determines the payments to claimants. In some states working on a "high quarter" system, claimants are required to work in every week in every quarter in order to collect maximum benefits, and the duration of benefits varies from 9 to 16 weeks.

In general, under this system, an individual has to work more consecutive weeks in order to be eligible for benefits and often receives less money and for a smaller amount of time than in states like New York or Rhode Island. In these latter states, an individual is only required to have worked 20 weeks earning at least $40 per week or for 40 weeks over a two-year period with 15 of those weeks occurring in the preceding year. There is no requirement for having to work consecutive weeks, and benefits are triggered according to the amount earned. The benefit period is a set 26 weeks with a possible 13-week extension.

Some performing arts groups in the "high quarter" states attempt to time their productions in order to have them run within a particular quarter, thereby assuring members maximum benefits. However, that is not always easily accomplished, and many people in the performing arts find themselves working erratically in a number of different productions or other jobs. The per quarter earnings for many of them, and accordingly the benefits to which they are entitled, are reduced.

Many New York arts organizations have been able to use the unemployment compensation system to their advantage by hiring artists for 20 weeks and then laying them off, making them eligible for 26 weeks of benefits if not more.

James M. Rosbrow, executive director of the commission, noted that the New York unemployment insurance system is more equitable to claimants and that the "commission is urging the states to move toward the New York system. I think you'll find that artists would be pleased if they all did."

Although the commission does not address itself directly to the concerns of artists, either performing or visual, many of its recommendations apply to them. In many states, for instance, artists are classified as seasonally employed -- similar to migrant workers, teachers or professional athletes whose periodic unemployment was considered as part of the job -- and therefore not eligible for unemployment compensation. The commission recommends that teachers and migrant workers receive benefits for the months in which they are not working.It also opposes proposed legislation that would redefine teachers, artists who work in schools, and others who work under contract as "independent contractors" -- a classification barring them from receiving benefits.

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