Obama’s Overtime Rules, My Theater, and Me

"...for all the struggling and fundraising and budget-crunching I've had to do in my three seasons here, we are very fortunate compared to a lot of our peers."

For most of us who work in the arts, financial solvency is often a struggle, and we often laugh it off. Though I typically write about politics for the CFR, I’m happy to have my second opportunity this year to blend my day job with my column.

I run a relatively large nonprofit community theater in the Midwest, the Sheboygan Theatre Company. We’re over 80 years old and have a solid volunteer base of more than 100 people per season. We have a subscription base of around 1,000 in a city of 50,000, which isn’t too shabby in this day and age. We are very blessed to have in-kind support from our school district and Sheboygan’s Recreation Department. I try to never take for granted that, for all the struggling and fundraising and budget-crunching I’ve had to do in my three seasons here, we are very fortunate compared to a lot of our peers.

From one perspective, I love my company and I work hard for it.

This spring, President Obama signed into law the Overtime Final Rule, which automatically extends overtime privileges to around four million Americans in its first year of implementation, requiring time-and-a-half to be paid to any worker making less than $47,476 a year who puts in more than 40 hours a week. While as a progressive and a loyal Democrat I applauded this action, the arts administrator in me suddenly broke into a sweat. As Managing Director, a huge part of my job is tending to the financial health of my company. I am the only salaried member of my organization, though I pay a handful of guest artists as contracted services throughout the year, including directors, music directors and designers. My salary and benefits package represents a significant portion of our budget (well over 25%), but I still fall short of the magic number that would allow me to work the hours necessary to do my job without being paid overtime.

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With the signing into law of the Overtime Final Rule, the executive committee of the board went into action, and we had several productive conversations about the way forward. They were empathetic to the situation and could see how much it was freaking me out and conflicting my feelings. From one perspective, I love my company and I work hard for it. After two decades of freelancing as a theater artist, it has been a blessing to me and my family to have the benefits of a steady paycheck and a comprehensive benefits package with a job that I enjoy, even if it does keep me away from home for many hours when things are busy. The idea that I would be paid for extra time that sometimes can’t be avoided in the arts was potentially an exciting form of validation in a career that has otherwise cost me friends, spare time, relationships and even at times affected my health.

From another perspective, I care passionately for my job. Though we’ve faced declining subscriptions and donations and struggled with keeping the budget under control, I’m proud of my track record in keeping things financially manageable and producing quality work. How could I justify an exorbitant additional cost to an organization for which I wrestle, every day, to keep bills paid?

The leadership of my board came up with a responsible plan: this fall, we began to track my hours in order to see exactly when I would break 40 per week, and to see if there were ways to maximize my time more efficiently. I began taking one night a week off from the theater whenever possible, or else I worked from home for a couple of hours when I could manage it, using the rest of the day to catch up with my son. As December approached, we decided that we would weigh what seemed to be the more fiscally responsible ways to go and adjust accordingly, probably starting with time-and-a-half for the rest of the season and reconfiguring from there.

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From another perspective, I care passionately for my job.

Then, on Nov. 22, US District Court Judge Amos Mazzant issued a temporary injunction stopping the new guidelines until they could be examined more closely. It’s telling that one has to scroll through four or five pages of Internet search results to find a major outlet covering this story. Despite the conflict and the angst I had been feeling over possibly costing the theater company more money, I was suddenly and unexpectedly upset. Why wasn’t I worth the consideration anymore? If my workweeks sometimes took me to 50, 60, even occasionally 70 hours, shouldn’t I be compensated for that time? Yes, I worry about my company’s budget. But I also worry about my personal finances. We don’t starve and I’m a naturally frugal person — I’ve traveled and moved enough that I’m not a fan of having a lot of stuff. Still, I have rent, car payments, bills, and an incredibly precocious and growing and hungry 6-year-old.

We all have bills: I’m being simplistic. And I will wait for the fate of the final ruling and I will bow to whatever game plan my board proposes. If someday it isn’t financially enough for my situation, I will figure out the next step. For many leaders of small, for-profit commercial businesses, I can certainly see the concern when it comes to meeting the bottom line.

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Artists often joke wistfully about our financial lot in life. We chuckle and say “That’s showbiz!” I often teach that the arts should be considered with the same devotion as a religious vocation or the military: If one can imagine being happy doing anything else, one should consider doing anything else. I’m also a firm believer that if you’re truly built for this, the worst day working in the arts is better than the best day doing anything else. After centuries of being considered poor, second-class citizens, perhaps it is time for artists and artistic leaders to come out and say it:

We are worth it.

Wanting to be fairly compensated for the long hours we commit to our organizations does not mean we aren’t, indeed, committed to our organizations. Yes, we’re all passionate about our organizations, sometimes to the point of obsession, but yes, we are also Of Worth.

Perhaps it’s our chuckling self-deprecation over the years that has led to the lamented scenarios we’ve all heard before, from “Hey, can your band play in my venue for free? It’s great exposure!” to “You’re a costume designer, right? I’ll give you $100 to make my wedding dress!” No more. We are Of Worth.

Managing the budget of any nonprofit is a skill unto itself. More than skill — it’s an immense challenge for any organization in an era in which the arts have been marginalized and drowned out by every new form of media. The debate over these overtime rules — in this article, in my head, in my heart, in our boardroom, in a courtroom, in our communities as well as among members, sponsors, and donors, has to include asking whether the only way to balance a budget is by marginalizing those who pour all of their passion, time and talent into their organizations. This new overtime guideline, if it does go forth and into effect, may not be the best or the only solution for every company. What it will do, though, is to make a resounding call to arms — that we who work in the arts are Of Worth.