Museum workers are voicing safety concerns about being asked to work on site during the current lockdown in England.
However, since the work is permitted under UK government guidelines, workers have few options if their employer requires them to do this.
The issue is a particular concern among staff at London museums, many of whom use public transport to commute. On 8 January the city’s mayor Sadiq Khan declared a “major incident” because of the rapid spread of Covid-19 in the UK capital and the risk of hospitals becoming overwhelmed.
One part-time employee working in collections management for a London national museum told Museums Journal they had been asked to work on site up to three days a week this year. The employee had safety concerns about both working on site and commuting more than two hours a day on public transport.
“Most of the work we’ll be doing, we can’t do socially distanced,” they said. “We’ll be moving objects and you have to stand right next to people, and working in stores that either don’t have any ventilation or have very poor ventilation.”
The employee said their direct manager had been understanding when they had raised the issue. However, according to the employee, the museum’s senior management has provided a list of tasks it considers critical, which includes the work of the employee’s department.
The employee said they had spoken to at least 10 colleagues in similar situations who held the same view as them. “It would be better if we were working from home, and there are lots of things that we can be doing from home,” said the employee.
They said the work included preparing objects for loans and exhibitions, “when we don’t even know whether those loans and exhibitions will end up happening”.
They expressed frustration that the museum had been highlighting its wellbeing initiatives while requiring staff to work on site. But they said “I’m just having to suck it up and get on with it”.
Sharon Brown, a negotiations officer for the Prospect union who represents employees at six heritage organisations, said she was aware of several similar cases, predominantly in the city. “A lot of our members commute long distances from outside London,” she said.
Brown said the government guidance gives employers leeway “to qualify some of their work as either time-limited or business critical” and ask staff to travel on site to complete it.
She said the union had been asking employers to consider whether work was worth risking the safety of staff for and whether project timetables could be revised.
“We have asked employers to undertake an immediate review on the requirement for staff to travel in,” said Brown. “Some people are doing that, and others have said that the guidance is there and that they can still ask people to come in.”
“Our members really feel that they’re not being listened to and morale is extremely low,” she said.
Brown said that some employers have agreed to offer more flexibility over the days that employees were asked to come in or the times they travelled to work.
Separately to Prospect’s negotiations, this has been the case for an employee at a large museum outside London who has been required to work on site for a collections move project.
According to the employee – who is on a temporary contract – the museum said it was not possible for all of the team to work from home, and that it was following the government guidelines in asking some people to work on site.
“The people who took the decision had been working from home since March, so it does feel a bit weird that they are not taking any risk themselves, but we have to,” they said. “We have been asked to sacrifice so much in our personal life and make so much effort for the past year. If the one place I catch it is at work, I would be really annoyed.”
After the employee voiced concerns to their direct manager about the impact on their mental health, the museum has now agreed for them to work some days from home.
Guidance from the National Museum Directors’ Council (NMDC) says that staff unable to work from home should go in to their workplace. It says: “The risk of transmission can be substantially reduced if Covid-19 secure guidelines are followed closely. Employers should consult with their employees to determine who can come into the workplace safely taking account of a person’s journey, childcare responsibilities, protected characteristics, and other individual circumstances.”
This is based on the UK Government’s guidance, which says that “where people cannot work from home they should continue to travel to their workplace”.
But some in the sector have called for staff to be furloughed for safety reasons. After Khan called the major incident on 8 January, the Culture Group at the Public and Commercial Services Union posted a tweet saying: “London employers must do the right thing. All workers not performing absolutely critical functions should work from home or be furloughed at full pay.”
On the same day, Fair Museum Jobs tweeted: “We know DCMS is telling heritage orgs to keep staff working and not use the furlough scheme this lockdown. This why museums are still demanding their staff travel in to work throughout the biggest rise in cases so far. SHOUT FROM THE ROOFTOPS: This is not acceptable.”
However, a Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) spokesperson said: “This is categorically not true. Organisations have been told that they may furlough staff where necessary, and in such a way that ensures value for public money. Museums and heritage bodies' individual staffing decisions are a matter for employer and employee.”
Museums directly funded by the department are supposed to operate at arm’s length, but in 2020 there were concerns within the sector that this principle was at risk of being compromised.
In October, the Museums Association (MA) urged culture secretary Oliver Dowden to “respect the arm’s-length principle” after he wrote a letter to museums and cultural bodies about contested heritage.
The MA’s policy manger Alistair Brown made a similar warning to the government in April after it emerged that the Treasury had told DCMS that arm’s-length bodies should not top up the pay of their furloughed workers to 100%.