Striking San Antonio Symphony musicians, board at odds on orchestra’s financial health


More than three months into their labor strike, San Antonio Symphony musicians are arguing with management over the orchestra’s bottom line as concerts continue to be canceled.

The musicians assert that the symphony is on much stronger footing financially than it has been since 2014, thanks to the federal COVID-19 relief funds it received in 2020 and 2021 through the Payroll Protection Program and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants program, as well as an employee retention tax credit.

“It’s certainly better than it has been for quite a while,” said Mary Ellen Goree, chair of the symphony musicians’ negotiating committee. “It’s better than they were projecting earlier on.”

The musicians point to a financial statement for the Symphony Society of San Antonio, the nonprofit board that runs the orchestra, that appears to project a surplus of $1.8 million by the end of the fiscal year.

“This $1.8 million surplus was projected at the beginning of December,” said musician Eric Siu, secretary of the negotiating committee. “Since then, at least three more weeks (of concerts) have been canceled. Every week we cancel, they save money.”

There also is that tax credit, which amounts to an $877,000 refund.

“That’s almost an extra half a million dollars that they didn’t know about when we started negotiations last summer,” Siu said.

The musicians believe the Symphony Society now has the money to put the full orchestra back onstage for the remainder of the 2021-22 season. Between the pandemic and the strike, the musicians have not been onstage at full strength since the end of February 2020.

Corey Cowart, the symphony’s executive director, said it is true that things are better than they were eight years ago, but not by that much. The symphony’s overall financial picture is complex, he added.

“The federal funding has greatly helped the symphony survive through the pandemic — as well as our generous community of patrons and donors,” Cowart said via email. “The PPP funds were all used in previous seasons.

“In terms of our improving financials, the change is very small: In our fiscal year 2014 audit we had negative $687,984 working capital. At the end of our most recent fiscal year we had negative $649,747 working capital. While it is technically an improvement, we’re still in a negative financial position.”

Financial projections are updated monthly, he said. The January projection is in progress and could be different from the December numbers.

Dennis Elam, an associate professor of accounting at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, reviewed the Symphony Society’s statement of financial position and a chart listing the orchestra’s net assets from 2006 to 2021 at the Express-News’ request. He said the latter indicated that — adjusting for inflation — the orchestra has fewer net assets now than it did in 2006.

For years, the symphony has started each season with negative working capital, which means they have more liabilities than assets, Cowart said. It also means that a “surplus” doesn’t necessarily translate into extra cash.

“It’s like we have this amount in the bank, but with all of our liabilities and everything else, we don’t have enough to cover all that,” he said. “So a surplus for us is really a positive change in our net assets. It still could be from a negative number to a slightly better negative number, but that’s kind of the reality that we’ve had.”

The symphony does expect to get the tax refund, but it may take a while. Cowart said that when the paperwork was filed in November, they were told it would take six weeks to six months to process. That timeline has changed to nine months to a year, he said.

As for the COVID-19 relief money, the symphony applied for and received two PPP loans of about $954,000 each as part of a federal initiative designed to give businesses an incentive to keep employees on the books during the pandemic.

The 2020 loan covered payroll for eight weeks, and the 2021 loan covered payroll from February through June.

Both of those loans — awarded before the strike, on April 7, 2020, and Jan. 29, 2021 — were forgiven. In order to be forgiven, businesses had to file paperwork demonstrating that they had spent the money for its intended purpose. In addition to payroll, that included safety equipment related to COVID-19, rent and utilities.

The symphony spent the money on payroll and benefits, said symphony controller Gilbert Yanez.

The symphony has an administrative staff of 12. Payroll is its biggest expense.

The orchestra’s 72 musicians have been on strike since late September. They had been renegotiating the contract for the 2021-22 season with the board. The musicians unanimously rejected a proposal that would reduce pay and eliminate 30 full-time positions. Musicians who lost their full-time jobs would be offered part-time contracts with no health insurance.

After the board imposed a contract with those terms in September, the musicians went on strike. Since then, the board has canceled the musicians’ health insurance and other benefits, and both sides have filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The musicians have picketed the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, which is the symphony’s home, and held silent protests outside the homes of Cowart and board Chairwoman Kathleen Weir Vale.

Eight concerts have been postponed or canceled. The next scheduled concert is Jan. 28.

The board and the musicians last met Jan. 6. The musicians put forth a proposal that would get them back onstage and compensated by the terms of their 2019 contract. They would not ask for back pay for the canceled concerts nor would they ask for them to be re-scheduled. The musicians say that represents a concession of 35% to 50% of their salary for the season on the part of the musicians.

The board is looking over the proposal, Cowart said. The next step would be to call another meeting to talk it over and perhaps offer a counter proposal.

Cowart, Siu and Goree are hopeful that an agreement can be reached in time to salvage at least some of the season. Eleven concerts remain.

“I certainly hope that they take advantage of this incredibly generous offer we have presented them with and get us back onstage,” Goree said. “I think that everybody would be better off if the musicians would be back onstage with a fair agreement.”

dlmartin@express-news.net | Twitter: @DeborahMartinEN



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