What Is Your Arts Employees Rights Policy?

Barry Hessenius recently wrote a post about Arts Employees Rights. Given the amount of conversation and news stories about sexual harassment and other unwelcome activities throughout the creative industries, this seems a very timely subject. I see the topic appearing with increasing frequency on the schedule of arts and culture conference panels.

In addition to issues of safety, Hessenius discusses the need to examine pretty much every category heading of an employee manual. It occurred to me that while I have seen many of these topics discussed separately in posts, I can’t recall many “this is everything that should be in your employee handbook” posts.

I don’t know that we should necessarily take it for granted that every arts organization has an formal employee handbook much less that people have a complete sense of what should be included in the document.

Since equal compensation is a focus of broad conversation these days, it is no surprise that concept straddles a number of his category headings. (Which include Safety, Support, Equality, Compensation & Benefits, Termination, and Career Trajectory.)

He asks many of the difficult questions facing non-profits (this is only a smidge):

Should that minimum wage for full time employees be a living wage – defined as sufficient enough to cover minimal living expenses of room, food, transportation, et. al. for the cost of living of a given area?  (So someone working in Silicon Valley or New York City would need greater revenue that someone living in Fresno or Buffalo).  But can small and mid-sized arts organizations afford such a suggested requirement?  What would have to change to make that a reality?   Should all arts organization employees be provided a minimal level of health insurance?  Is that affordable?  What about retirement benefits or contributions by the employer?  Is that possible?

These are difficult questions for many arts organizations. The better you treat your employees, the fewer you may be able to employ, especially in the face of declining philanthropy.

You may recall about three years ago the Department of Labor was preparing to implement rules that would raise the salary criteria for non-exempt employees, meaning that many, many more non-profit employees would have been eligible for overtime pay than before.

I wrote about an Atlantic article that noted that this placed many non-profits in a strange position ‘“…between the values that many nonprofits hold and the way they treat their own staffs.”

Basically, non-profits work hard advocating for better pay and working conditions for people in general, but find themselves opposing that for their staffs due to lack of funding for operations.

More recently, the CEO of a Goodwill in Illinois tried to shame the governor into vetoing a minimum wage hike by laying off people with disabilities the organization employed, blaming it on the increased costs.

Hessenius acknowledges providing people with appropriate compensation is difficult, but challenges arts organizations not to discard it as a topic of serious discussion. It is easy to say the revenue stream will never support our ideals about compensation so it is futile to even discuss the question. He says there is a need for a conversation about how compensation fit holistically into the organization policy and philosophy on  employee rights.


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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