Pittsburgh's museums and libraries are where we go to admire great works of art and literature. But some museum and library workers say their employers don't give all employees the respect they deserve.
Some have joined to form Info Desk, a new campaign by local cultural-industry workers who say they're underpaid and lack adequate say in the workplace. The effort receives help from members of Fight Back Pittsburgh, a social-justice group affiliated with the United Steelworkers.
A top issue is health care: The group launched last year, after some part-time employees at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and elsewhere saw their hours limited to less than 30 hours a week. The cutbacks anticipated the federal Affordable Care Act, which requires employers of a certain size to provide health insurance for employees who work more than 30 hours weekly or else face fines.
Interviews CP conducted with several current and former employees of the Carnegie and other institutions suggest that the change was most noticeable at The Andy Warhol Museum. Starting in July, gallery attendants there were limited to 25 hours per week. Of the Warhol's roughly 40 attendants, some who had been working as much as 40 hours a week saw their hours cut — even as the museum hired 20 or more additional part-time attendants to pick up the slack. Other attendants reportedly quit because they could no longer make ends meet.
At other Carnegie museums — which include the museums of Art and Natural History and the Carnegie Science Center — even some employees who were not regularly working 30 hours weekly say they experienced cutbacks. And at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, a part-time employee confirms that part-timers there have also been limited to 25 hours a week since early 2013.
The Carnegie Museums acknowledges that cutbacks were prompted by the Affordable Care Act. However, writes Carnegie spokesperson Betsy Momich in an email, as of early last year, only 48 of the Carnegie's more than 600 part-time employees were then averaging 30 hours or more a week. Of those, 17 have since been made full-timers, writes Momich. "The great majority of our part-time employees did not see their hours reduced," she writes.
Carnegie Library spokesperson Suzanne Thinnes acknowledges that the library is "cognizant of" the ACA, and says that part-time workers are now kept under 30 hours a week. But she also notes that budgets for both full- and part-time pay rose this year.
Workers CP interviewed don't blame the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, for the cuts. Rather, "This whole avoidance of paying affordable health care is despicable," says one Info Desk organizer, who like most workers interviewed for this article requested anonymity for fear of workplace retaliation. "We're talking about multimillion-dollar institutions here."
The cultural workers CP interviewed professed a strong emotional connection to their institutions: The workers "love museums and love being in them, and love working with artists and working with these collections," says one art-handler.
"I feel good going there," says one Warhol attendant whose hours were cut. "We're a progressive, forward-thinking museum." Still, the attendant added, "I feel like this is a very progressive, forward-looking thing, paying people what they should be paid. And they're not doing that."
"It starts to feel really demoralizing when a situation like this comes up, a federal law, and the opposite of what you hope for comes true," says another museum worker.
The health-care issue has led to other grievances. The workers whom Info Desk addresses include both staffers at reception and information desks and behind-the-scenes folks, like art-handlers and art-maintenance workers; some have specialized skills such as carpentry. According to CP's interview subjects, many are college students, or graduates in their 20s; not a few are artists themselves. Most earn minimum wage, or a little above, to work seasonal, irregular hours; many have two or even three jobs. One Info Desk organizer estimates that in Pittsburgh, such workers number up to 1,000. (That figure doesn't include security guards, though an interview CP conducted last summer with a Carnegie Museum of Art security guard indicated that several guards there had also seen their hours reduced.)
"Ultimately, $7.25 [an hour] isn't a suitable wage for any position, and especially not in the Carnegie system, where there's such a huge gap [in pay levels]," says one Warhol gallery attendant. (According to tax information filed by the Carnegie Museums in 2011, the most recent year available, 17 employees earned in excess of $100,000.) "At an institution with such a high profile in Pittsburgh, it would be nice if employees could expect good things."
Info Desk held its first meeting in October, and its website (www.infodeskpgh.org) is currently circulating an online petition titled the "Cultural Industry Workers' Declaration of Rights." Its demands include "a living wage," "access to quality, affordable health care," "reliable and predictable scheduling" and "a voice in how our institutions operate and plan for the future." Info Desk plans to present the petition to leaders of cultural institutions after garnering 5,000 signatures.
Asked to respond to the petition, Momich wrote, "We aren't going to get into a debate about the issues being raised by this group on the petition site."
At press time, the petition had 212 signatures. Signers include local arts advocate Carolyn Speranza. Limiting hours to avoid providing health care is "outrageous," says Speranza. "It's disrespectful of the law. But even more so, culture workers have every right to have a living wage and have health insurance."
In fact, one Info Desk member says she has health coverage through her employer, a medium-sized arts nonprofit, but "I don't get to use it that often": She can't afford the $40 co-pays.
Nationally, discussion of whether the ACA would cause part-time jobs to spike has been widespread. But while Congressional Budget Office numbers indicate no big rise in part-time jobs, anecdotes abound about retail and fast-food outlets cutting hours to avoid providing coverage. Employers like Papa John's and Darden Restaurants threatened to do so, but backtracked after public backlash.
One Warhol gallery attendant whose hours were cut last year says he understands why. "I can't blame an organization of that [size] for trying to retain what they have going on," says Andrew Daub, 26. The Point Park University grad now works about a day a week at the museum, plus two other part-time jobs (including a Starbucks gig that provides health care).
To filmmaker Julie Sokolow, a locally based advocate for health care for artists, Info Desk's campaign highlights "the necessity of a single-payer system" in which health care is completely separated from employment. The current system "[is] not true universal health care ... and we need to work toward that."
In the meantime, Info Desk organizers say cultural institutions should try harder. "Wendy's and Dunkin Donuts don't make any pretense of being progressive institutions," says one organizer. "We work for [museums] because we respect the job they perform. We just want them to set an enlightened or progressive standard for society. When they don't, it's disappointing."