Correction to This Article
This article misstated the debt figure for the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. The symphony's debt is $1.5 million, not $1.5 billion.
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U.S. Workers' Wages Stagnate As Firms Rush to Slash Costs

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs at Strathmore in January with the Soulful Symphony. BSO members recently agreed to forgo a pay raise.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performs at Strathmore in January with the Soulful Symphony. BSO members recently agreed to forgo a pay raise. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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Experts fear that wages will not keep up. Once the recession ends, economists expect, the recovery will be long and slow, with sluggish job creation. Without a tight labor market, employers won't have to compete as much for talent and workers will have less leverage to push for higher pay, experts say.

"Once you knock down wage growth, it will take a substantial change in unemployment to move it again," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. "The recovery is going to be weak. I think as wage growth subsides, it is going to subside for many years."

Members and employees of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra are bracing for more hard times. The orchestra has had to contend with a $1.5 billion debt. Carla Johnson, the VSO's executive director, said she noticed donations and ticket sales start to slide in 2007, before the recession officially started. After the economy took a nose dive in September, grants dried up. People who had pledged to buy season tickets reneged. Some longtime subscribers, in particular retirees living off investment income, "were so embarrassed they could barely speak to us," Johnson said. The musicians were furloughed, and the administrative staff, including Johnson, took a 20 percent pay cut. The two moves saved the VSO about $500,000.

Since then, nearly everyone with the orchestra has had to make adjustments. Viola player Matthew Umlauf, the primary breadwinner for his family of four, shelved plans to buy a house in order to put more money aside in an emergency fund. Owner, the trombone player, called friends around the country in search of gigs in April to make up for his lost income. Public relations director Donna Hudgins planted a vegetable garden, while her husband, a judge who recently stepped down, went back to work as a substitute judge. He's worked every day since he retired, she said, and she has no plans to stop, either. "I'm working longer than I ever thought I would," Hudgins said.

She and other VSO staff, who are not unionized, had little say in the changes. But the orchestra members, who are organized, did. They accepted the furlough knowing that the standard cost-cutting measure -- layoffs -- was not an option. A clarinet player, for instance, can't pick up the slack for a missing violinist.

Orchestras everywhere are feeling the pain. Just last week, members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra volunteered to give up wage increases and other benefits in order to save the BSO $1 million.

The VSO members will probably have to make further concessions during upcoming contract negotiations, Johnson said. While the musicians don't relish the idea of more financial hardship, the orchestra members said they will find some way to keep performing.

"We don't stop playing because times get tough," Owner said. "We love what we do."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.


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