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COVID positive museum workers in DC are afraid to call out sick, union president says

Skyrocketing coronavirus cases lead to staffing crisis at DC's national museums. Union wants the museums to close.

WASHINGTON — The same COVID-19-related staffing issues that are affecting local businesses right now are also harshly affecting federal museums in the District.

According to Linda St. Thomas, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institute, 209 COVID-19 cases were reported among Smithsonian Institute staff members from Dec. 17 to Dec. 31.

As case numbers began to climb, Smithsonian management closed four museums from Dec. 29 to Jan. 3: the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Museum of Asian Art. 

"The decision to close four Smithsonian museums herded visitors into the museums that remained open. At times, the lines to enter the National Air and Space Museum could be seen wrapped around the sidewalk outside of the museum," Reginald Booth, president of AFGE Local 2463, wrote in an editorial published on the Federal News Network's website.

AFGE Local 2463 is the union representing several museum workers and security officials.

Meanwhile, case numbers continue to climb among staff members.

"Employees contacting the union described feeling as if the Smithsonian had sacrificed the health and safety of every employee scheduled to work by exposing them to the continuous line of visitors that come from all over the United States, to keep the museums open," Booth wrote.

"At no point does the Smithsonian operate museums with staffing levels that jeopardize the safety and security of its employees, visitors, or collections," St. Thomas told WUSA9 in an email. "This is why we announced closures and reduced hours."

Booth says he is concerned both about staff safety, security and potential COVID-19 transmission between visitors and staff.

"I feel like right now, if anything, they need to close the doors and allow the COVID spread to stop," Booth said in an interview with WUSA9. "Right now there's really nothing being done to slow this down."

"To date, the Smithsonian has had no confirmed case of a visitor-to-staff transmission," St. Thomas wrote in an email.

The rising number of cases has prompted Smithsonian leaders to close additional museums, like the National Air and Space Museum. The current list of Smithsonian museum days and hours of operation through Jan. 17 can be seen HERE.

"Because the Omicron variant is so contagious, we have more employees reporting positive diagnosis or symptoms than ever before," Dr. Anne Christensen (McDonough) the associate director of occupational health services for the Smithsonian Institute wrote in a Jan. 6 memo to staff.

Booth says the number of employee call-outs is putting increased pressure on those employees who continue to work. 

"This (rising case numbers) just made it even more difficult. Employees are being held over. They're coming to work and some of them have been working 16 hours, others have been working for 24 hours," Booth said. "And these are people that have weapons and aren't supposed to be (working extended shifts)."

Additionally, he says, some workers are concerned about pay gaps and could be hiding a sickness or positive diagnosis.

"[Employees] could be placed on some kind of leave restriction letter so some of them are coming to work when they shouldn't be coming to work and we don't want to see that continue because then the COVID numbers will never go down in the museums," Booth said.  

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