The ink is barely dry on the $2.2 trillion congressional relief package and companies who received funding in the bill—which is designed to help keep people employed—have begun announcing layoffs, anyway.
On March 27, United Airlines announced that, despite taking some of the $58 billion in funding earmarked for the airlines, they’d be laying off staff as soon as the law allows.
And on Tuesday, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, recipient of $25 million in funds provided, among other things, to cover employee payroll, announced it would be furloughing 250 administrative staffers for five weeks, bringing the organization’s total layoffs to more than 1,100.
The Kennedy Center already announced it would be cutting the paychecks for musicians at the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday, and will kick them off their health insurance if concerts do not resume by May.
According to leaked emails, the Kennedy Center leadership actively lobbied Congress to be included in the $2.2 trillion bill, despite the obvious fact that the plight of the Kennedy Center, which is already federally supported in annual spending bills, didn’t seem to most Americans to be in the same league as struggling small businesses, families that suddenly lost their primary means of income, and hospitals short on life-saving ventilators and other supplies.
Still, the Kennedy Center ended up receiving $25 million from Congress. Admittedly, this is a pittance compared to the $500 billion in loans that mid-sized and big businesses will be able to access. But it’s become emblematic of Congress’ inability to focus on those truly in need.
As families struggled, small businesses shuttered, and hospital staff went without protective gear, congressional relief stalled for weeks, in part due to disagreement about how the relief loans to large corporations should be structured—but also so congressional appropriators could pick and choose their favorite projects to fund during a national emergency.
It’s why, in a bill with the stated purpose of helping families, small businesses, and health care providers, a water project in Utah got $500,000, sex-ed funding was extended by $48 million, the U.S. Forest Service got $3 million for “rangeland research,” and “innovative sunscreens” got special FDA review.
But there is something about that $25 million for the Kennedy Center, in particular, that highlights the divide between Congress and the rest of the country.
Though established to be “the nation’s cultural center,” the Kennedy Center is more often seen as the playground of D.C.’s bureaucratic elite. It’s most notable event, the Kennedy Center Honors, features celebrities giving awards to other celebrities while making overtly political statements against President Trump and anyone who supports him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calf.) gets standing ovations, though, obviously. And celebrities use the platform to push their own woke causes that honestly have very little to do with anyone who is just trying to put food on the table.
The Center’s management says it’s all about the arts. But it’s really about elite celebrity culture. It’s not like they want the general public there. A seat to attend its 40th-anniversary production started at $6,000.
And that’s what makes the Kennedy Center’s treatment of its own employees—the administrative staff, the janitors, the parking assistants, and even its own orchestra—so revolting.
The Kennedy Center is not some small-town restaurant operating on a thin margin, where three weeks of government-mandated closure is the difference between mustering basic survival and losing everything.
According to their most recent annual report and publicly available tax filings, the Kennedy Center is sitting on $500 million worth of net assets, including over $140 million in expected donations. In 2017, they reported $150 million in revenues from programming. Their endowment is around $120 million.
This is an organization that can afford some generosity in a national crisis, particularly since they’ve just been given a $25 million cash infusion, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer, on top of the $41 million they’ve already received.
Yet, there is a striking difference between how the Kennedy Center, the “nation’s cultural center,” has responded versus the many other multimillion-dollar organizations that have chosen to put people over profits during a national pandemic.
Hanes has retrofitted its factory to produce surgical masks, which are in short supply. Starbucks is paying its workers for 30 days, regardless of whether they can come to work. The grocery chain Wegmans is giving its employees a raise through March and April. Distilleries are now making hand sanitizer.
In Texas, Houston millionaire Jim McIngvale is offering free meals to families in need in the parking lot of his furniture store. Mike Lindell, the CEO of My Pillow, is retrofitting his million-dollar company to make surgical masks. Walmart is paying cash bonuses to its hourly workers. McDonalds is extending paid sick leave to quarantined employees. Marc Benioff, the CEO of SalesForce, has made a 90-day no-layoffs pledge and is urging other CEOs to do the same.
True, the Kennedy Center isn’t a billion-dollar for-profit organization, but it’s sitting on a heck of a lot more assets, not to mention a $100 million endowment, than the ordinary not-for-profit.
But, as Kennedy Center board chairman David M. Rubenstein made clear, those assets aren’t for employees. The Kennedy Center intends to “preserve as much capital as we can,” he said this week.
In other words, the musicians, parking attendants, and cleaning staff may not be able to make rent, but too bad, because those self-congratulatory celebrity bashes aren’t going to pay for themselves.
In a time of national crisis, the so-called “national cultural center” begged the government for a $25 million handout before ungraciously kicking its staff to the curb. This is reflective of D.C.’s culture, certainly. But it does not at all mirror the rest of America.
One of this country’s most celebrated poets, Maya Angelou, said that when someone shows you who they are, believe him. The Kennedy Center has made its priorities clear. It’s a move we shouldn’t forget. And it’s the kind of thing Congress cannot continue to reward.