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MoMA Workers Must Decide Whether To Return To Work Amid Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

Back in the spring, New York City was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. But recently, case numbers there have stayed low, and New Yorkers are trying to get back to a life that's as normal as possible during a pandemic. The big museums - the Met, the Whitney and the Guggenheim - have started reopening. Some people are thrilled, but some museum workers are not. Here's Sally Herships.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: On the sidewalk outside The Museum of Modern Art, a slender man is smugly holding the world's tiniest Chihuahua. Tourists climb out of taxis gazing anxiously at their phones with directions and digital tickets. They're wearing interesting glasses and have artsy haircuts. But everyone is masked. Perry Allan (ph) is visiting from upstate New York, and he's nervous. This is his first big outing since the pandemic began.

PERRY ALLAN: I'm just seeing how it goes.

HERSHIPS: But for employees on the inside, it's a bit more complicated. Some of the turmoil from the pandemic has crept into the museum. Anh Le says for her, the problems began in early March. At the time, it was her job to help museum visitors learn about workshops and activities. But coronavirus cases were starting to spike, and she didn't feel safe at work.

ANH LE: They gave us hand sanitizer, and it was like, you could have gloves if you want (laughter).

HERSHIPS: She was a contract worker paid around $21 an hour, but her hours were capped at 30 per week, so she didn't get benefits like health insurance. What if she got sick? I spoke to nearly a dozen other contract workers like Le who said the problems began long before the pandemic.

LE: It's called a fissured workplace where you end up having to take multiple jobs in order to support yourself. And everything is subcontracted. And then you don't get any safety net from your employer.

HERSHIPS: Le says there's another problem, too. At MoMA, workers of color, both contract and paid staff, are at the bottom of the pyramid in terms of pay and power.

LE: All the front-facing staff - the security, the restaurant workers, customer service and the educators - are all very diverse. And then I would then go to the cafeteria where all the staff ate, and then, like, everyone else would be white.

HERSHIPS: Le says that meant when financial problems from the pandemic hit, workers of color were more likely to be affected. In March, the museum laid off 84 people. In an email, the museum said, quote, "we did not have to furlough or layoff a single employee of the museum," unquote. That means all of those laid off were contract workers like Le. The museum said it paid those laid off through March. I've also heard from full-time employees who are afraid to speak out publicly for fear of losing their jobs. They say they feel under intense pressure to return to the museum when they can do their job safely at home. But MoMA has told almost all staff they need to be at the museum. Here's museum director Glenn Lowry explaining his thinking during an online staff meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GLENN LOWRY: We must show solidarity with each other that our place of work is the museum. And while some of us might be able to argue we never need to be in the museum to still do our work, that's not equity. That's the opposite of equity.

HERSHIPS: A spokesperson from the museum said it's taking every precaution, and workers are only required to be onsite part time. But the workers I've heard from say the logic doesn't make sense. For example, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is only allowing certain staff to work in person. Marquita Flowers worked with visitor engagement at MoMA, but as a contractor, she was also laid off in March. She says Lowry is out of touch with workers like her. With his multimillion-dollar salary, he's the highest paid museum director in the country.

MARQUITA FLOWERS: If I had a chance to speak to Glenn, I would just be like, bro, like, look at your family. Look at what you called a family. How are we doing now? Where are we?

HERSHIPS: As for Anh Le, she has a new job working with the city to help other Southeast Asians navigate resources during the pandemic. For NPR News, I'm Sally Herships in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "UNKNOWN DESIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.