People visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington in April 2019.

People visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History on the National Mall in Washington in April 2019. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file photo

Smithsonian Employee Union Raises Concerns About Safety During Reopenings

The Smithsonian doesn’t have a date yet for when its locations will open to the public, but officials said they’ll have procedures in place to protect staff as well as visitors.

Smithsonian Institution facilities remain closed to the public indefinitely, but the agency’s union is worried about employee safety when operations resume, based on problems encountered by staff who have been required to report to worksites over the past year and those involved in limited reopenings in the summer and fall. 

On March 14, 2020, the Smithsonian closed all of its locations (the majority of which are in Washington, D.C.) as the lockdowns for the novel coronavirus pandemic began. Between July and September, the National Zoo and seven museums reopened with restrictions, but then all were closed again in late November due to a spike in coronavirus cases in the Washington region. Despite being closed to the public, many employees, such as security officers and facilities workers, still have to be on site, which has been an ongoing problem, according to American Federation of Government Employees Local 2463, which represents Smithsonian employees. 

“We have had since Day 1 numerous problems beginning with trying to be on the [Smithsonian’s] committee, on the COVID team, so that bargaining unit employees could have a representative,” said David Hendrick, president of AFGE Local 2463. “They refused my numerous requests to allow the union person on the committee.”

There are over 6,300 employees at the Smithsonian, of which 3,215 are bargaining unit employees. Many union members have been working on site during the pandemic, and “the majority are minorities and a large part of that is African American,” according to Hendrick. Those are communities that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. 

On-site employees have been working “side by side with outside contractors who repeatedly fail to wear masks,” Hendrick said. “On numerous occasions they do not have adequate [personal protective equipment] supplies. Cleaning procedures after someone is found to be infected are below standards or not [happening] at all.” Also, “on some occasions when they come down with COVID the Smithsonian claims they caught the COVID virus at home and refuses to pay them while they recuperate at home.” 

WUSA9 first reported in April 2020 that contractors were working at the Museum of American History, which prompted employees’ concerns for increased risk of exposure. 

As of this March 1, there had been 242 COVID-19 cases among Smithsonian staff, of which 97 were teleworkers. At least 145 of the staff infected were bargaining unit employees, Hendrick was informed by the Smithsonian (a Smithsonian spokesperson told Government Executive the agency would not disclose the numbers). 

Union members are “concerned with what's going to happen to them once the public comes in because of the lack of Smithsonian following the COVID recommendations, providing adequate supplies and ensuring that the employees are safe,” said Hendrick. “They’re scared not only for their health” but also their families’ well-being.  

Union representatives also expressed concern that the Smithsonian won’t follow the Labor Department’s “presumption of workplace causation” for federal workers who contract COVID. Employees have an easier time claiming benefits if it is assumed they caught COVID at work. The presumption of workplace causation was first enacted last May and then updated in the recent coronavirus stimulus package.

The problems during the pandemic are part of the Smithsonian’s overall goal of saving money and an ongoing “class war” with bargaining unit employees being viewed as the “lower class,” Hendrick said. 

A year later, “I’m concerned still,” said Jarvis Waller, an officer in the Zoological Park Police and shop steward for AFGE Local 2463, who experienced many of the challenges that Hendrick mentioned. “Yes, we have a new president that has basically done a 360 compared to the last president and everyone’s getting tested and everyone’s getting vaccinated, but I’m concerned about my agency.” 

The availability of personal protective gear and clearing supplies has been an ongoing concern at the zoo, in particular. 

Also, “they didn’t put out the information that you get up to 15 weeks if you come up COVID-19 positive,” which was a provision in President Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” enacted on March 11, according to Waller.

Reggie Booth, executive vice president of the union local, said in some situations management took pre-existing conditions into consideration for those who had to work on site, but not for all. Also, “the employees aren’t receiving ample notification when someone tests positive” and they are worried when the public is allowed back in, “are they going to be kept safe?” 

Alise Fisher, a Smithsonian spokesperson, told Government Executive that the agency has an established process for reporting and investigating coronavirus cases. She said that about 90% of staff has been working from home and gave the following statement on what they’ve been doing to protect those who can’t: 

“To protect themselves and each other, our employees conduct a daily self-check of their health before coming to work, follow our ‘stay home if sick’ policy, wear appropriate face coverings in the workplace, practice safe social distancing, and wash and sanitize hands regularly. Among other safety measures, we have installed directional guidance and signage where needed to accommodate safe social distancing; reduced occupancy throughout staff areas, such as break rooms; installed protective safety shields; and used a risk assessment and mitigation process before conducting work activities involving more than one staff member. Where needed, we provide additional personal protection equipment to further reduce risks. If employees self-identify as having a medical condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, they are currently asked to stay home and paid their normal salary.”

The Smithsonian has not received a direct allocation of vaccines yet, but is providing staff with information on how to get shots in their respective areas. Also, “we did not have any documented cases of visitor-to-staff transmission or vice versa while our museums were reopened” for a period of time last year, Fisher said.

Government Executive provided the Smithsonian with a list of some of the union’s concerns––regarding personal protective equipment availability, contractors coming into facilities, a union representative allegedly not being allowed on the Smithsonian’s coronavirus committee, employee testing and tensions between the union and agency. In response, Fisher told Government Executive

“The Smithsonian’s first priority is to protect the health and safety of our staff and visitors, which includes ensuring the availability of sufficient [personal protective equipment] for our staff. Our COVID-19 response team leaders meet with the union regularly to discuss plans and solicit feedback. We recognize that the union is an integral part of the reopening process and will continue to seek their input, abide by all obligations, and strive to strengthen our partnership.” 

The Smithsonian inspector general said this fiscal year it plans to review the agency’s implementation of the emergency management program in response to the pandemic as well as its use of $7.5 million in funds from the CARES Act. 

Starting January 22, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser allowed museums to reopen with no more than 250 people per floor and without guided tours. Then she announced on Monday that starting May 1, museums, galleries and exhibits could operate indoors and outdoors at 50% capacity. 

Several for-profit museums in the D.C. area have reopened between January and March, The Washington Post reported. Fisher didn’t have a target reopening date for the Smithsonian to share, but said they are “actively planning” for when it is safe to do so.

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