What is the difference between a teaching artist profession of independent contractors and one of employees?

Teaching artistry is a relatively new, unformed profession. Teaching artists employed by organizations like the Workshop often vacillate between classifications as independent contractors or temporary part-time employees.

In a February 18 article in the New York Times, Steven Greenhouse describes how the Obama administration is cracking down on the willful misclassification of employees as “independent contractors” in many industries. Willful misclassification allows employers to avoid paying Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and other employee benefits. It is a common practice in the arts education field among organizations that rely upon teaching artists to deliver their services.

Greenhouse states: “Workers are generally considered employees when someone else controls how and when they perform their work. In contrast, independent contractors are generally in business for themselves, obtain customers on their own and control how they perform services.”

At Performing Arts Workshop, our teaching artists are part-time temporary employees, not independent contractors. They are supervised and supported by Workshop staff. They do not broker their own site relationships, but rather Performing Arts Workshop program staff cultivates site partnerships and schedules artist residencies. The Workshop, in turn, pays their Social Security, Medicare, unemployment and worker’s compensation insurance as well as provides liability insurance, a legal requirement to teach at school sites. Also, under San Francisco law, the Workshop pays teaching artists for sick time taken as needed.

Often, arts education organizations hire teaching artists as independent contractors to “do their thing” – teach their particular art form in a classroom setting. In this scenario, the artist will coordinate her own schedule and conduct her own classes without supervision from the contracting organization. By law, the independent contractor artist must provide her own liability insurance in order to teach at a school site. However, this expense is prohibitive for most individual artists, which often leads to non-compliance.

What is the difference between a teaching artist profession of independent contractors and one of employees?

Security. Teaching artists operating as contractors have no access to the social safety net provided by unemployment, worker’s compensation and Social Security; they are not subject to minimum wage, or overtime regulations. They have no protection in cases of employment discrimination. They do not receive paid sick time. This leads to an unstable workforce, which hurts both the artists and the youth that they serve.

Quality. Teaching artists operating as contractors are not subject to supervision. They are not entitled to professional development. Often, this leads to a field rife with inconsistency – good teaching artists often become very good at their own thing; bad teaching artists risk never breaking bad habits. All of them lose out on the opportunity to grow, learn and refine their skills. Youth lose out on a comprehensive, high-quality education in the arts.

Willful misclassification of teaching artists deeply affects both the arts education field and the youth that we serve. Just as our youth explore their relationships with others and learn how to communicate with their peers through arts learning experiences; so must artists be able to connect with and learn from their peers in order to remain engaged, engaging teachers.

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2 thoughts on “What is the difference between a teaching artist profession of independent contractors and one of employees?

  1. As the Executive Director of a small arts organization that pays its artists, including teaching artists, as employees, I fully understand the points made in this article. I do, however, wish to point out how putting artists on payroll negatively impacts the smallest of organizations.

    It happened to our small troupe. We paid our artists as independent contractors because we truly believed they were. People who run tiny non-profits, coming from the arts themselves, don’t know the fine distinctions between the worker categories. When the State of New York compelled us to create a payroll, we did it. But now, payroll taxes had to be written into every budget, resulting in fewer artists hired. Does that help our field? I know other small organizations that also downsized on the heels of this experience, and one had to totally eliminate its arts-in-education program.

    I believe artists do deserve the benefits that accrue from payroll taxes, but I would urge state governments to work out halfway measures for organizations struggling to grow. Again, I’m not an economist, but I have faith that the solutions are out there.

  2. This is a great point. The transition is tough, particularly for a small organization, to move teaching artists from a contractor status to temporary part time employees. It is a great idea for states to allow some leeway for small organizations. This is also an opportunity for funders of our work to support these transitions , given the value (benefits of both quality and stability) of a staff of employees, rather than a roster of contacts. In doing so, they would be recognizing the true value of the work that we do; a dollar amount that too often we under estimate when communicating with funders.

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