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‘This Is a Different Kind of Stress’: U.S. Government Shutdown Leaves Many Arts Workers Without Paychecks

The Smithsonian Institution.

COURTESY SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history has forced arts museums in Washington, D.C.—and beyond—to close for extended periods of time. The Smithsonian museums,  Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Gallery of Art are among those that have been forced to shutter this month, with some exhibitions at these institutions going off view without any visitors during their final days. But museum employees have been forced to bear the brunt of the shutdown as well.

To better understand the effects of the shutdown on workers at these institutions, ARTnews spoke to Smithsonian employees about how they are making ends meet without a steady paycheck.

Linda St Thomas, the Smithsonian Institution’s chief spokesperson, is one of around 800 employees exempt from the furlough. (Many of those employees, she explained, are zoo workers who need to care for animals throughout the shutdown.) “We’re furloughed, but we’re expected to come to work,” she told ARTnews. When everyone receives back pay, St Thomas said, she will get the wages she is owed for the time spent working during the shutdown.

But some employees have been out of work entirely, and a quarterly tax system has left some contracted Smithsonian workers scrambling to find ways to get by. Nearly a third of the workers at the museum are paid through independent contracts, meaning their salaries come through funds that aren’t federal. One such contractor, who asked not to be named, citing fear of retaliation, told ARTnews that quarterly taxes needed to be paid on January 15, several weeks into the shutdown. “Luckily, I had a solid chunk of money saved up so I could pay my taxes,” the contractor said. But other expenses had caused alarm as well: “I’ve already had to pay my rent since the government closed, and if we go on another week, I’ll have to pay it again. . . . For me, the insecurity isn’t if the money will come through, it’s when it will come through.” Other contractors have been forced to rely on friends and family for the needed funds, she said.

Among those who have had to work without pay, as the Washington Post reported last week, are workers at the National Gallery of Art who deinstalled a Rachel Whiteread retrospective. (The shutdown could affect future exhibition programming as well: the NGA may need to delay the start of the first-ever American retrospective devoted to Tintoretto, which is currently set to open in March.)

Some employees have confronted politicians about the matter. The Post released a video in which Faye Smith, a contracted security guard at the Hirshhorn, stormed into Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office, telling him, “If I don’t have my rent by next month I’ll be evicted automatically. I can’t go to my family, Mr. McConnell. My family is with the federal government. Five people in my family are furloughed.” Smith said she had to bring her jewelry to pawn shops to pay bills.

To support each other, workers have begun coordinating efforts to make sure their colleagues are financially stable through group texts and other means. “Some of us are good enough friends where we check in with each other on whose paycheck to paycheck and whose not,” the contractor said. “Some people are fine right now, some aren’t.”

Another federal employee, who also asked not to be named, told ARTnews that the shutdown had begun to alter their daily routine. “Work is stressful because you have tasks to do on a timeline, but this is a different kind of stress,” the employee said, expressing doubt over when the shutdown will be resolved and back pay issued. “I had a structure to my day that totally went away. . . . Not to mention money—when I’m stressed at work, I know that at least I’ll get a paycheck every two weeks.”

The employee said colleagues had started seeking other forms of work in the interim. “There’s been a lot of interesting stuff that’s been going on in D.C. to try and support people during this really crazy time. They’ve been opening up roles for more substitute teachers and things like that, places have been offering discounts, and just more little things to help people out.”

Some employees, like the contractor, have continued working remotely, with the hope that their invoices for their labor will paid off at a later date. “I knew that there would be nobody around to process invoices, so I know that I won’t be paid until the government reopens,” the contractor said. “But that’s so much better than the alternative, which is [not] putting in the hours.”

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