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Kennedy Center cuts nearly 30 percent of its administrative staff

The Kennedy Center has been shuttered since March 14. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Kennedy Center laid off 64 employees and shed an additional 47 vacant positions on Friday, representing nearly 30 percent of its administrative staff. The cuts came a day after officials unveiled a performance schedule that will be half the size of a typical season.

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The cuts are needed to address the financial challenges of the pandemic-related shutdown, Kennedy Center President and chief executive Deborah Rutter said in an interview. The arts center projects a $23 million budget shortfall for the 2020-2021 season.

The 64 laid-off employees are spread across all departments. Most are among the 188 workers who have been on furlough since early April. On Aug. 3, the Kennedy Center will bring 45 employees back from furlough, leaving 79 who are not expected to return to their jobs until the fall, Rutter said.

“It is devastating to be in the circumstance where we’re making this decision,” Rutter said.

The cuts are connected to the ongoing closure and the reduced performance schedule released Thursday. In a typical year, earned revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking and other sources makes up about 70 percent of the arts center’s operating budget. This fiscal year, the best-case scenario predicts a 2020-2021 schedule that’s half the size of recent years, with earned revenue expected to be about 48 percent.

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Friday’s staff cuts, Rutter said, are a way to close the projected $23 million shortfall.

“We have to find ways to conserve revenue,” she said. “These actions will help move toward that.”

Rutter decided to forgo her $1.2 million salary in March, earning just enough to cover her health-care costs. She is now taking 25 percent of her salary.

When the Kennedy Center closed March 14 as part of the effort to stop the spread of covid-19, it laid off about 750 hourly and part-time workers, including ushers, stagehands and box-office and retail personnel. Although it received $25 million in Congress’s first relief package — money intended to help pay the salaries of staff during the closure — the center furloughed about 250 employees across departments, including marketing, development and education. About 70 employees have returned to the payroll, but about 188 have been out for 16 weeks.

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When the full staff is back in December, it will total 301, compared with 411 before the closure in March.

Rutter said that Kennedy Center leaders systematically evaluated every position, absent names, to determine which were indispensable and which could be eliminated. Laid-off employees will be given a severance package, including health care coverage through 2020, she said. Medical coverage also is being extended to furloughed staff.

In the spring, the unions representing the National Symphony Orchestra and Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra negotiated pay cuts averaging 25 percent for their members. Rutter said Friday that the arts center will ask for more reductions.

“We’d been given indications a month ago” that officials would be seeking more talks, said Peter de Boor, French horn player and chairman of the orchestra committee. “We’ve been waiting by the phone, as it were, but we haven’t been contacted.

“We understand the financial situation, at least superficially. We are not agreeing to reopen the contract, but we are happy to discuss changes.”

The cuts and continued furloughs come as the $600 federal unemployment insurance bonus is set to expire next week. Rutter said the arts center had distributed $300,000 — from donations from board members — to employees since March. Additional aid is expected.