COVID-19 and Organists: Q & A

This page has been created by the Committee on Career Development and Support and the staff of AGO Headquarters to share with readers the best guidance AGO has found on a variety of issues resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic that are affecting organists. For answers to questions on employment issues, we are especially grateful to committee member Doris Dabrowski, an employment law attorney licensed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. 

If you have additional questions you would like addressed, please be sure your question is not already addressed, and then use the comment form at the bottom of this page.  Please note that specific guidance needed for your particular circumstances may differ from what would apply in other situations; for that reason, the AGO cannot issue comprehensive guidance on what is advisable for every situation.

Q & A for Musicians’ Questions during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Please note:  On the advice of legal counsel with expertise in employment law, the AGO encourages employees to apply for unemployment or pandemic unemployment assistance benefits even if there is doubt about eligibility. A link to state unemployment office websites  is available on the website of the U.S. Department of Labor,  The state agency gives a reason for the denial, which could be appealed.  

Can a part-time or full-time church musician employee qualify for unemployment benefits?

Each state has different eligibility requirements and procedures for signing up to collect unemployment benefits. Members should visit and click on the drop-down menu heading, “Benefits by State” to find your state and its eligibility requirements. If you don’t see your state in the main list, click “VIEW ALL STATES.” We suggest that members apply for unemployment benefits, even if in doubt about eligibility. The state agency processing claims must render a decision about eligibility. If the employee disagrees with the decision, the employee can appeal and consult legal counsel in the state. We encourage members to contact their local and state representatives to explain the adverse situation for organists and church musicians.

How does the current stimulus bill affect me?

The Relief for Workers Affected by Coronavirus Act as passed by the Senate, Sec. 2102 (jj), allows for benefits for persons otherwise ineligible for unemployment compensation but whose place of employment is closed as a direct result of COVID-19. This will likely be a source of benefits for church employees and gig musicians overall. The fact sheet prepared by the National Employment Law Project has more information about the CARES Act and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that is part of it.  Most gig workers and church employees probably will depend on PUA rather than regular unemployment compensation. The state unemployment agencies are responsible to process claims for PUA benefits.

My church is closed, however the clergy has asked me to record music for services that will be streamed over the internet. I have been informed that I will not receive compensation for these recordings and will receive payment for playing live services once the church reopens. Should I be receiving compensation?

Yes, whether you are performing live or through online streaming, you should be compensated.  Please review the fact sheet regarding the Unemployment Insurance Provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

I have two part-time jobs, one where I receive a W-2 and the other I receive a 1099 tax form for a church job. Since I am not working as an organist now due to COVID-19 but still receive income from my other job, can I qualify to receive benefits for UI or PUA? I make approximately the same amount for each job, meaning I have lost half my earnings.

The employee can apply for benefits; she must report her earnings from the job that is continuing.  She may qualify for a partial benefit.  Eligibility and the amount of benefits depends on the unemployment law of her state. 

I’ve two (2) jobs in North Carolina. One is permanent full-time (40 hrs.). The other is part-time (church musician). Due to the coronavirus, I’m still working full-time, but, the musician hours are no longer. Can I draw unemployment from my part-time job, although, I’m still working full-time? 

Eligibility for unemployment benefits is governed by state law.   State laws typically have a provision for partial benefits.  A link to state unemployment office websites  is available on the website of the U.S. Department of Labor,

Church employees must beware of the exemption of churches from the obligation to pay unemployment tax.   I understand that some states may allow churches to voluntarily contribute to the unemployment fund.

If the unemployment is due to COVID-19, a church employee should apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

I am the Organist/Music Director at a church. Now that we are moving into different phases of reopening, my church would like me to do recordings with the choir, along with editing. I understand that my job is to provide music for each service; however, I feel that editing is an additional service. It requires a lot of time in addition to hosting rehearsals before recording. Should I ask for additional compensation? Recording and editing are other beasts.

Compensation is due for all work performed for the employer.  The location of performing the work or the method of transmitting the work product does not affect the obligation to pay for services performed.    A salaried employee who continues to receive a salary is not necessarily entitled to additional pay for a performance that is streamed, unless the agreement between the musician and employer provides for supplemental compensation for broadcast, recorded or streamed performances.

State wage payment and/or wage and hour laws may provide some additional remedies.

If the musician is salaried, the employer is simply obligated to pay the agreed upon salary for all work performed.    With few exceptions, employers may not dock the salary because an employee left early.    In this example, the employee is the winner.   On the other hand, the salaried employee may be on the short end of the bargain if the amount of required labor is particularly heavy to perform job duties.

The answer depends on the terms of the agreement between the musician and the church.   The musician may have a good argument for more pay if the agreement specifies limited duties which are exceeded by the streaming activity.    Beware of duty descriptions including “other activities as assigned” or words to that effect.

If the employee is paid hourly or by some other by some other unit of measure, the pay is due for all time expended, regardless of the nature of the activity.

How can services be web-streamed or recorded and posted online without violating copyright laws?

Please see this excellent article by cathedral musician and Selah Publishing Co., Inc. president David Schaap, “Livestreaming your Church Services: Are You Doing it Legally?” that will appear in the July issue of TAO.

Is it safe to have another organist play the organ, or can Covid-19 be transferred from the keys?

Organs sometimes have to be used by multiple organists; for example, churches that are web-streaming services with live music and have multiple organists on staff, or schools allowing their faculty to stream demonstration lectures or concerts. There are conflicting reports of how long the Covid-19 virus can survive on hard surfaces, but this apparently is not the most common method of transmission from one person to another. The best advice is to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (see​, which has instructions for keyboards), as well as the advice of the professional technician who cares for the tuning/maintenance of the instrument in question. Requiring all organists who play a particular instrument to wash their hands before and after playing is probably the best preventive step, as well as never touching your face, and not sneezing or coughing, while at the organ. Requiring a mask to be worn by all organists who share time at the same instrument while playing that instrument could safeguard against possible spread.  It is best to take a safety-first approach for the benefit of others as well as yourself.

Is it okay to have a small number of musicians, such as a few instrumentalists or a quartet from my choir, to lead singing on live-stream services or videos while my church is not able to have public in-person services during the pandemic?

While it may be tempting to congregate a small group of singers and other small ensembles for the purposes of worship via various media, caution should be observed. The Centers for Disease Control provide recommendations for Community and Faith-Based Leaders here:  COVID-19 presents unique challenges to the church music community as we try to navigate guidelines for practice sessions, performances and worship services. It is important to remember that social distancing does not solely include physical distance, but also hygiene practices, aerosol distribution in the vicinity and its possible lasting effects, as well as behavior around surfaces. As always, follow the most up-to-date advisories from the CDC.

What about my choir singing during worship during this time?

Most research seems to indicate that people must be extremely cautious about any type of group singing.  A very detailed analysis of infections that happened surrounding a choir’s final two rehearsals during early stages of the outbreak of Covid-19 in Washington state has been published by the Centers for Disease Control here:  On May 5, 2020, three organizations dedicated to choral singing (American Choral Directors Association, Chorus America, and the Barbershop Harmony Society) and the Performing Arts Medical Association presented a webinar, “A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing?, in which experts shared sobering data and recommendations that should be taken into consideration by all choir directors, singers, and the institutions sponsoring them.  The two and one half hour webinar has been archived on the NATS COVID Resources Page, along with PDF files of the speakers’ slides.  As states throughout the USA proceed to allow non-essential business to re-open it is important to proceed very carefully in activities such as singing, which has been documented as providing conditions ideal for exposure to the coronavirus.  For information on looking forward, Chorus America has posted some very helpful articles on its webpage for Choruses and COVID-19 (Coronavirus).

Is an organist playing alone in the choir loft at a church service safe from the virus? Would ceiling fans bring the virus upstairs?

There are many variable circumstances to be considered by organists and their employers, who must answer this question for themselves.  Some of the following questions will inform the answer that guides your decisions:

  • Where is the choir loft located?  Near or far from worshipers and worship leaders?
  • How large and ventilated is the worship space?
  • What direction do the ceiling fans blow:  down, from above both the loft and the congregation? down, over only the congregation? up, to pull air through ventilation openings in the ceiling? and, can this direction be changed without warning and/or your knowledge?
  • How full will the attendance be in the space, and is it open to the public with or without limitation on number of participants and distancing?

For expert guidance to ascertain what is safe for you in your house of worship, please refer to the Interim Guidance for Communities of Faith (recent as of May 23, 2020) published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Is it okay to play a pipe organ during COVID? There’s debate in our church whether, since this is a wind instrument, it will blow Covid particles around. Research shows that minute Covid droplets attach themselves to dust particles and disperse in the air for 2-4 hours. The organ is in an enclosed chamber 10 feet above the floor of the balcony, and 25 feet above the congregation in a very large building. The blower is located in a tower well above the balcony. Thanks.

Most of the expert health guidance regarding wind instruments and Covid is about instruments where the wind source is provided by the lungs of the player, such as in playing the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, etc., not mechanically winded instruments like the pipe organ.  While individuals do not supply personal breath to provide wind for a pipe organ, many have wondered about the air circulation properties of the wind in a pipe organ. The AGO has consulted experts on organ design and engineering through the American Institute of Organbuilders on this topic, and we are grateful to those who have provided helpful replies in a compilation of responses which can be accessed by clicking HERE.

This page was last updated on July 17, 2020.


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