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More Pay Cuts, Furloughs for Museum Staffs Under COVID-19

virginia museum of fine arts building
Starting on Sunday, all part-time employees at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will be furloughed. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some Richmond-area museums are expected to institute more furloughs and pay cuts this weekend, as doors remain closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting Saturday, the Science Museum of Virginia will force full-time, salaried staff to take one unpaid day off per pay period, every two weeks. That’s the equivalent of a 10% pay cut. The museum already furloughed most of its part-time employees. 

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, non-critical part-time employees will be furloughed starting on Sunday. Those employees will now be eligible for unemployment. The art museum has 561 part-time staff, and 221 will be affected.

Richard Conti, the director of the Science Museum, said many museums have relied on endowments or other reserves to continue paying employees. As the pandemic drags on, he said museums are being forced to make difficult decisions.

“On March 13, we thought we had plenty of reserves, but as it went longer and longer, and looking forward to what it’ll be like when we reopen, we’ve had to make some adjustments,” Conti said.

Pay cuts for full-time staff at the Science Museum will not affect their healthcare benefits. 

Conti said employees have been understanding about the pay cuts and furloughs.

“We are a really busy museum and I don’t think anyone has seen it close like that for more than one day at a time,” Conti said. “Just seeing this huge place empty for weeks, I think everyone after a while was anticipating that we were going to have to take some sort of action.”

A spokesperson for the Science Museum said it was on track for a record year of admissions before the COVID-19 outbreak occurred. 

Both the VMFA and the Science Museum received state support under Governor Ralph Northam’s State of Emergency Declaration. Virginia allotted up to 160 hours of public health emergency leave to state employees, but those benefits expire this month. 

While those state-run museums weren’t eligible for federal relief, the Valentine Museum received a $300,000 emergency loan through the Small Business Administration. Bill Martin, who heads the local history museum in Richmond, said that loan has allowed them to continue to pay most full-time staff.

“That money, for us, is payroll,” Martin said. “It does allow us a lot of flexibility to keep people on and doing work that is meaningful.”

Even though the doors are closed, work is still going on behind-the-scenes at Richmond’s museums. 

The Valentine is using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to reevaluate all of the pieces in the museum and if they serve the mission of the institution. The task, which includes evaluating more than 1.6 million objects, is the largest undertaking in the museum’s history.

Martin said the project is helping some part-time employees to stay on and help.

“One of the things that will also emerge from this is that this institution’s collection will also be very different,” he said. “We already know that there is a percentage of this collection that does not relate to our mission of documenting the history of the Richmond region.”

The Valentine has also created  activity workbooks for students who are now learning from home during the pandemic, as well as a  new outreach project so youth can document the historic moment they’re living in. 

At the Science Museum, exhibits are being disassembled for deep cleaning and maintenance.

“You’d be shocked at how much dust gets inside of some of this stuff,” Conti said. “There’s a lot of intense cleaning going on.”

It is still unclear when Richmond’s museums will be able to reopen, but in a statement, the VMFA says it has a tentative plan to bring back furloughed employees to begin the process of reopening the museum on June 5. 

Northam’s ‘stay-at-home’ order is scheduled to end on June 10.

*Editor's Note: A previous version of the story said all part-time employees at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts were being furloughed. It has been updated to reflect that only 221 part-time employees will be furloughed.

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