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. 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 use the comment form at the bottom of this page.

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

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  https://fileunemployment.org/unemployment-guide/unemployment-eligibility 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. 

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 https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/disinfecting-building-facility.html​, 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: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/index.html.  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: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6919e6.htm.  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).

This page was last updated on May 14, 2020.

COVID-19 Q & A: Question submission

If you have a question to suggest be answered on this page, please submit it in the box below and click "submit."
  • If you would like to provide your name for follow-up, please provide it here. Names of persons asking questions will not be displayed.
  • If you would like to be contacted about your question, please provide a working email address.