Despite the recent rise in COVID cases reported by the Smithsonian, agency heads ignored the pleas of union employees and continued to allow an unlimited number of visitors to pour into the museums over the holiday period. The decision to close four Smithsonian museums herded visitors into the museums that remained open. At times, the lines to enter the National Air and Space Museum could be seen wrapped around the sidewalk outside of the museum. Throughout the weekend, frightened employees contacted the union with the news of their having tested positive for COVID. Others called to say they had been called by Occupational Health and Safety and told they had to quarantine because of having been in contact with someone at work who had tested positive for COVID. Many of the employees who were sent home informed the union they had to use their own leave.
Employees contacting the union described feeling as if the Smithsonian had sacrificed the health and safety of every employee scheduled to work by exposing them to the continuous line of visitors that come from all over the United States, to keep the museums open.
Law enforcement has been severely understaffed over the years at the Smithsonian. The risk that has been taken over the past week makes it increasingly difficult for the agency to hire and retain law enforcement and security officers. Many have become too stressed out by years of working 12 hour shifts, or double shifts. The lack of sleep, added stress and threat of AWOL charges if they are unable to return to work the next shift, are forcing some to seek employment elsewhere.
The union has requested the doors to the museums be closed due to the increase in the Omicron strain of the virus, and the increase in COVID cases within the museums. This would allow the union employees who are already overworked due to the number of officers quarantined for COVID-related reasons a chance to rest up and avoid ending up on the positive COVID list as well. Contracting COVID at the Smithsonian separated many union employees from their families during the holidays. Many have changed their perception of how the Smithsonian treats their hard-working staff.
Reginald Booth is president of AFGE Local 2463, which represents Smithsonian employees, including security and maintenance staff.