The Smithsonian Institution laid off 237 employees from its shops, theaters and concessions this week, part of ongoing cost-cutting measures meant to limit the financial losses related to covid-19.
Eight facilities have reopened in since July, including the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of the American Indian last week.
“We tried to retain as many [employees] as we possibly could,” said Ed Howell, head of retail for Smithsonian Enterprises, the revenue-generating division of the sprawling institution. “But the vision is that this is going to go on for an extended period of time. Financially, it was a real struggle.”
The layoffs took effect Monday, the start of the first pay period of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Most of those let go received full pay and benefits between March 14 and July 5, when they were furloughed as the pandemic-related closures continued, Howell said.
At the end of April, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III announced salary and hiring freezes and 10 percent salary cuts for 87 senior-level, nonfederal executives — including 19 from Smithsonian Enterprises — for a year beginning May 24. Bunch and Deputy Secretary Meroe Park took 15 percent cuts for the same period.
An additional 66 Smithsonian Enterprises employees earning $100,000 or more were hit with 5 percent cuts. The division had 550 employees before the pandemic.
The majority of the institution’s 6,300 employees are federal workers and not affected by these moves.
A survey by the American Alliance of Museums found that 44 percent of museums initiated furloughs or layoffs as a result of the pandemic; a report from this summer estimated that about 1,500 employees nationwide had been laid off since March.
Federal funds from Congress make up two-thirds of the Smithsonian’s $1.5 billion annual budget, allowing the museums to offer free admission. The $500 million balance comes from endowment funds and donations, the revenue it earns from ticketed programs, shop receipts, parking and other activities.
The eight facilities that have reopened — the National Zoo, the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery round out the list — are operating on reduced schedules, with limited capacity and with new health and safety protocols. Visitors are required to wear masks, obtain free timed passes in advance and practice social distancing.
The store at the Udvar-Hazy center is open and those at the American History, American Indian and African American museums are expected to reopen in a few weeks. Howell said the Smithsonian hopes to open more stores as visitor numbers increase and staff become familiar with new procedures.
Online sales — especially of books, puzzles and children’s games — have increased since the pandemic, but nothing compared to in-person sales. “No, there’s no offset there, Howell said.
“It is a tough time obviously for the people who have lost their positions and for their colleagues in the stores that worked closely with them. They are part of the Smithsonian family,” he said.
The layoffs don’t include those who work in the Smithsonian’s eight cafeterias and cafes, which are operated by Restaurant Associates and remain closed.
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