The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on museum, gallery and heritage workers since the UK shutdown was enforced on 23 March. Although many are supportive of how their employers have handled these unprecedented circumstances, Museums Journal has also been told of numerous examples of poor employment practice during this time.
The situation has developed rapidly over last few weeks, and many cultural institutions are in an extremely tough financial position, so it’s not surprising that some employers have struggled to find the right balance. But the crisis has also shown just how precarious a lot of work in museums and galleries really is, putting an uncomfortable spotlight on the sector’s heavy reliance on freelancers and short-term contracts.
One fixed term contractor at a major London institution, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid burning bridges with his employer, said the institution had backed out of an expected extension to his contract, leaving him unemployed at short notice.
“To be frank, it feels extremely shit to know they’re not finding a way to extend my contract,” he says. “I’m personally very fortunate to have a family who’ve offered to help me if needs be, but obviously that’s not an option for loads of people.”
Many freelancers say they are falling through the gaps, in spite of the self-employment support scheme introduced by the government. Some are facing a huge financial hit because the scheme does not cover those who started in 2019-20. And a petition has been launched for the Treasury to exempt maternity leave from the scheme's average earning calculations, which puts many mothers at a disadvantage in terms of the amount of support they can receive.
The timing of the crisis, coming in the midst a busy recruitment period for museums and galleries ahead of the spring/summer season, has also had a big impact. At the end of March, the National Trust allegedly told hundreds of new starters who had been due to begin imminently that their jobs were being deferred, in spite of earlier assurances that those roles were secure. This decision has left some stranded in between jobs, and has also caused significant upset among the trust’s existing workforce. “I am absolutely shocked by their heartless and what I consider to be inhuman approach during this incredibly difficult time,” says one of the affected workers, who left a secure role and is now unemployed and fearful that she may lose her home.
Tina Lewis, the National Trust’s director of people and legal services, said: “We have had to make, and are continuing to make, some really tough decisions as we work through the effects of coronavirus. “Every aspect of what we do at the National Trust has been affected, and we took the decision to furlough up to 80% of our workforce to stem unrecoverable losses while properties remain closed. For this reason we have also deferred a number of job offers. “These are exceptional and challenging times for many. We are offering support and signposting guidance for those going through the recruitment process at the trust and, where possible, we hope to bring people on board when the situation improves.”
These examples are an indication of the great pressure that organisations are under at present. The government has attempted to address some of these issues; last week the Treasury confirmed that people who had been on payroll on 28 February and subsequently left can be rehired and furloughed by their previous employer if their new job fell through. But this comes at the discretion of individual employers, and Museums Journal has been told that requests are being turned down because employers are wary of having to make redundancy payouts in future.
The practice of furloughing is itself causing uncertainty among workers and employers. A term that few had heard of up until a few weeks, ago, thousands of museum and gallery workers are now furloughed under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which covers 80% of PAYE workers’ salaries up to £2,500 a month.
Many are still fearful for their jobs as there is no guarantee that employers will be able to keep people on after the three-month scheme ends in June – and no real indication of when the shutdown will be over. And the rules are unclear for employers too: public sector workers, including local authority museum staff, are not covered by the scheme, but national institutions are scrambling to confirm whether they are eligible because so much of their income is earned.
However there has been praise for how some employers in their approach to furloughing. “I have seen the best leadership ever during this period,” says one affected employee. “Furloughing has happened, even a small temporary pay cut, but the transparency and people being the focus has been amazing.”
As an employer, it was vital to enact the furlough scheme in a way that did not create an “us and them” situation between staff who furlough and those who don’t, says Jonathan Reekie, the director of Somerset House arts institution in London.
To make the process more equitable, Somerset House is asking almost all of its workforce to furlough at some point over the next two months. “The critical thing is that you can furlough for three weeks and come back,” he says.
“The whole journey of the past three weeks has just been improvisation,” adds Reekie. “It’s a level of uncertainty that I don’t think any of us has experienced before.” He says it has helped to be as transparent as possible with staff. “People tend to look to leadership for answers but this is a situation where you can’t give an answer. You just have to be as open and honest and as reassuring as you can be.”
The venue has also taken steps to support staff wellbeing during this time, creating social networks for its staff and trustees, with regular drinks over Zoom and Netflix parties. “There’s a very active social life going on. That does seem as important as the business bit,” says Reekie.
Cultural venues indirectly support a wide range of livelihoods, and Somerset House is also trying to assist the individuals and businesses that it works with; the venue is hoping to establish a hardship fund for artists, and offering a rent holiday to businesses that occupy its spaces. “It’s very easy to turn in on yourself but it’s so important to think about community and what people need collectively.”
With institutions mothballed and normal life at a standstill, the only certainty is that nothing will be the same when the pandemic is over. Reekie says: “We’re now moving very swiftly on to what is the plan to reopen, but it’s difficult to think about longer-term planning in a world where no budget makes sense anymore.”
This article was updated with a statement from the National Trust.