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ARTS ON THE EDGE

For musicians, unemployment coverage is out of step

Freelance violinist Mark Paxson sits on the porch of his Dorchester home. Paxson is one of many players to find himself shut out of the unemployment system.
Freelance violinist Mark Paxson sits on the porch of his Dorchester home. Paxson is one of many players to find himself shut out of the unemployment system.Erin Clark/Globe staff

Waltham violinist Beth Welty’s income dried up in a flash when all her upcoming gigs were canceled, shortly after COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic in early March. She soon joined the record-shattering number of Massachusetts workers applying for unemployment benefits.

Based on her role at the Springfield Symphony (the only job for which Welty receives a W-2 tax form, meaning she’s on payroll as an employee rather than a freelancer) the state of Massachusetts put her annual income at slightly more than $5,000. And her unemployment benefit? Just $70 per week.

“I make a lot more than $5,000 a year,” Welty said over the phone recently. "When it’s tax time, the state of Massachusetts is happy to believe that I make a lot more than that. Finally, after 37 years of living here and paying taxes, I need some help, and they’re saying I only make $5,000 a year.”

For many players, unemployment is a “square peg in a round hole” situation, said oboist Jennifer Slowik. There’s standard Unemployment Insurance for Massachusetts workers receiving W-2 forms. Then there’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the new program (under the federal CARES Act) providing benefits to gig workers and others traditionally ineligible for benefits. But the two programs don’t mix to account for the realities of a modern musician’s career. “Federal statute requires unemployment claimants to exhaust their regular UI benefits before being able to collect Pandemic Unemployment Assistance,” explained Massachusetts Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development spokesperson Charles Pearce in an email.

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Welty cobbles together an income from numerous sources. She plays in small orchestras all over New England. She’ll do a church service or a wedding here and there. She also teaches lessons. Most of her engagements issue 1099 forms at tax time, meaning she is paid as a freelancer.

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However, because of her 2019 W-2 income with the Springfield Symphony, she was ineligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That forced her to apply through the standard Unemployment Insurance program. Hence, $70 a week.

“[The system] just can’t seem to wrap its head around employment that’s not 40 hours a week, nine to five, W-2 only, H&R Block kind of taxes,” said Slowik, who plays with ensembles including Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Pat Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians’ Association, calls March 13 “the day the music stopped.” That day, he fielded too many frantic phone calls to count from suddenly unemployed members of what he calls the “Route 95 Philharmonic” — musicians like Welty and Slowik who gig all over New England, earning income in different states as both freelancers and employees.

“It was like a weather report that kept getting worse,” Hollenbeck said. “Musicians don’t have a safety net, for the most part. There’s no such thing as a rainy-day fund.”

What’s more, Hollenbeck has found that the Boston musicians aren’t used to applying for unemployment, compared with New York freelancers who “consider that to be part of their yearly income.” And with so many unaccustomed to the already labyrinthine unemployment system, which is now swamped by jobless workers, frustrations are running high.

Mark Paxson, a violinist who lives in Dorchester, said he makes most of his income through local freelance gigs and teaching. But he’s also a member of Maine’s Portland Symphony Orchestra, where he is paid as a staffer (and receives a yearly W-2). Accordingly, he said he found himself blocked from applying for unemployment in both Massachusetts and Maine, with Massachusetts not even letting him complete the application online. When he finally spoke to an assistant on the Massachusetts help line, he said she told him his social security number would be flagged for fraud if he didn’t disclose his out-of-state employment.

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“The bottom line is that Mass. unemployment said I need to go through Maine,” he said.

But then he couldn’t reach anybody in Maine.

Hollenbeck and others with the musicians’ union have taken on the mission of assisting members through the unemployment application process. To that end, they’ve created a guide that covers the basics, but because every case is different, they’ve spent hours on the phone with their members every day for the past few weeks.

Cambridge musician and writer Damon Krukowski, best known for his work with dream pop band Galaxie 500 and its offshoot duo Damon and Naomi, recently qualified for unemployment benefits for the first time in his life under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. “I never thought we could get any help from the government. This is just conditioning, as an artist living in America,” he said over the phone.

He also recently joined a union for the first time: the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, a new national union of musicians, DJs, sound crew, and other performance professionals demanding additional relief provisions from the federal government, including an extension of CARES Act benefits for all workers through at least the remainder of 2020.

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“I think the gift of the moment to musicians is that it becomes so evident to more people than usual that we are laborers,” Krukowski said. “That is something I really think we should seize on.”

Because no matter what or where musicians play, all sources indicate that their work won’t return anytime soon. Promoters such as Live Nation have canceled upcoming shows large and small, July 4 on the Esplanade has been nixed — along with any large public gathering in the city of Boston until at least Labor Day. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently suggested that concerts might not be possible until at least spring 2021.

“Until there’s a vaccine, it’s going to take that long before audiences, and some musicians, are going to feel comfortable,” Hollenbeck predicted. “It looks like string players and percussionists have it made ... but anyone who can’t wear a mask is in trouble,” he joked.

For now, Paxson is still bringing in money from teaching lessons online, and some more relief arrived when the Portland Symphony received a federal Paycheck Protection Program grant, allowing it to pay musicians for canceled concerts.

Slowik received some aid from various emergency grants, and also recently tried to apply for standard Unemployment Insurance with the help of another BMA member. Welty has been collecting her weekly $70 in Massachusetts benefits, plus $600 from the federal government as provided by the CARES Act. But along with many others, she’s looking askance at July 31, the day that CARES Act assistance is set to expire.

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“Musicians and gig workers are going to be out of work way longer than that,” she said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen unless Congress passes more stimulus or something. The whole system’s not set up for the way people are living nowadays.”

Zoë Madonna can be reached at zoe.madonna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.