This article is part of a series of firsthand accounts from people who work in high cost-of-living areas and are struggling to stay financially afloat. If you’d like to share your perspective, reach out to staff writer Pavithra Mohan at email@example.com.
At the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, employees have the privilege of working on world-class exhibitions and overseeing a sprawling collection of specimens. For years, institutions like the AMNH have relied on prestige and the allure of the work to attract and retain employees. But museum workers—many of whom are specialized and have earned advanced degrees—have been frustrated by wage stagnation and the widening pay disparities in their industry, sparking union efforts at museums across the country.
In cities like New York, tax filings indicate that the salaries of museum executives often start at $1 million, while low-level workers may be earning no more than $35,000. (Many of those leaders also reaped other benefits of the job until recently, like free housing.) More than half of museum workers reportedly earn less than $50,000 on a yearly basis, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average museum employee earns 20% less than U.S. employees overall.
Many workers at the AMNH are already represented by District Council 37, New York City’s largest public sector union, but the union has lost headcount over the years as the museum has relied on contract workers or hired people into new roles that aren’t included in the union. In 2022, about 250 workers—a group that includes 68 job titles, from guest services representatives and gift shop employees to educators and software developers—voted to join District Council 37 Local 1559, which represents all unionized museum staff (aside from museum guards, who belong to Local 1306).
When reached for comment, the AMNH referred Fast Company to a letter that president Sean Decateur sent to staff earlier this year, when the union ratified a contract for the new unit. “I know I speak for the Museum’s entire management team when I say that I am looking forward to continuing to work with unionized and non-unionized members of our community to advance the Museum’s mission and serve the public,” he wrote.
The rise in unionization across museums is, in part, a move to address issues of low pay and job security, especially after the pandemic led many institutions to conduct layoffs and furloughs. But at museums like the AMNH, hiring for certain roles has also grown increasingly challenging due to competition from retail stores and airports where pay has increased. “In all the years I’ve been here, this is the first time this has become an issue,” says Local 1559 president Christine LeBeau, who has worked at the AMNH for more than 15 years. “Normally, there’s a glut of folks wanting to work in these positions. [But] they can’t get security guards; they cannot find folks to work in the gift shop [or] at the ticket desks.”
For many of the artists and scientists who might have dreamed of working at a renowned museum like the AMNH—and have often spent time and money investing in graduate degrees—the jobs simply aren’t sustainable anymore. In a recent survey of workers at more than 50 museums in the U.S., about two-thirds reported that they had considered leaving their jobs, in addition to already high rates of turnover reported for people earning less than $50,000. Particularly since the pandemic, LeBeau says the museum has struggled to retain employees who find that they just can’t survive in New York City with such low pay. “You get these young fresh faces here, and they try to make a go of it,” LeBeau says. “And then they realize: I can’t live in New York City without having six roommates, and I’d like to get on with the next stage of my life and not live like a college kid into my mid-40s.”
One of the biggest issues that LeBeau and other union members are hoping to address in their next contract is the museum’s practice of using contractors and hiring people into non-union positions. Fast Company talked to an employee in the exhibition department of the AMNH who has worked at the museum for nearly 10 years—first as a contractor and then on staff—about what it was like to land a full-time job, how they manage to live in New York City on a museum worker’s salary, and what institutions like the AMNH stand to lose if they don’t take action. (The employee requested anonymity to protect their identity.) This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
“I essentially had to wait for someone to retire”
I grew up in the city and grew up going to the AMNH. I started working in their research library [when] I was fresh out of grad school. I was just kind of trying to find my way and wasn’t quite sure what I was doing at that point. But when I spent some time working there, I met people in the exhibition department, and I discovered [that] the job I wanted to have—the job that I thought was obsolete—still existed. I started temping for them, and it was several years of temping that eventually led to a full-time job. I essentially had to wait for someone to retire in order for the museum to open up that position, and then to be able to apply.
It was extremely frustrating to temp in the same place for years and years, and to do the job that is required of a full-time employee and not have the job security or the benefits that came along with it. There’s no real reason why I had to wait that long because the museum could have just opened up a position if they had wanted to. Over the years, as people retire or as they leave the job, [the museum] just doesn’t fill their positions. And they always claim something—they just don’t have it in the budget, or [it’s because of] the pandemic. There’s always something very convenient. But the museum just built an entire new wing that cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Even as the numbers have dwindled in my particular [department], they’ve filled the gaps by hiring temps. From my understanding, there were many other responsibilities that have been outsourced over the years. They formed a whole new wing of our department that is coincidentally non-union [for travel exhibitions]; we used to maintain the current exhibitions, and then they hired separate individuals [that] are also non-union. [So they’re] siphoning off our original responsibilities to non-union workers.
“There were many of us who were in the same position of temping for many years”
I worked at several institutions in the city. But I wasn’t as invested because I just wanted the job at the AMNH. Everything else was just kind of a means to get to this place. I just didn’t really understand why they wouldn’t just open up positions because there were many of us who were in the same position of temping for many years. But if it reached the six-month mark, that’s when your contract would end. It was also extremely frustrating because I knew that was the job that I wanted and that I was qualified for. But in temping, I was forced to go through a third-party company. So my W-2 forms never reflected the fact that I worked for the AMNH. It was really problematic for me because that meant that I couldn’t apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Theoretically, I should have been able to clear those student loans. I was [also] temping at other museums, which are also nonprofits. If you add up all the hours, I was essentially working full time.
In speaking to my older colleagues, many of them might have come in and temped for [a short time]—or some of them, like the ones who started 35 years ago, even [came in] straight from undergrad. In missing all those years on paper being considered a full-time employee, not only did I miss out on the public service loan forgiveness program, but there were other things as well. We have a pension, which I think is unheard of; one of [our healthcare] options is provided by the city, so it comes at no extra cost to us. [But] as unions have lost power [and] leverage, the things that made the contracts beneficial for their workers kind of get chipped away at, so you end up with different tiers of workers. [We] don’t have a 401k match anymore—that’s one of the things that we lost that we tried to get in our recent negotiations, and they would not budge. So I feel like I also ended up in a lower tier for some of the benefits within the union contract.
“You get the little bump, and it’s still just fighting for crumbs”
When I officially started full time, the pay was appallingly low—in the low thirty thousands. Now, taking into account the most recent pay increases [from the contract], it’s still something like $67,000. If they were to open up the position and try to hire new people, it dissuades the best candidates. Because the best candidates are not going to accept such a low salary. Someone who does accept that payment is scraping by, or people really have to rely on either family money or a spouse or partner who’s bringing home the bacon. I stayed at home with my parents for the first few years working at the museum, and I’ll also admit that I rely on my spouse, who makes considerably more than I do. Everyone does what they need to do to survive in the city. But it’s frustrating to know that I have a very specialized, niche job. I have an MFA—and I’m not the only one. And it’s just really not enough to get by. It’s kind of like: You get the little bump, and it’s still just fighting for crumbs.
One of the things that I really do appreciate about my job is that I’m punching in and I’m punching out. In normal times, it’s a 35-hour work week. I feel like in other jobs, especially salaried jobs that are not unionized, you put in a lot more than 40 hours. [But] when it gets to crunch time, we put in a lot of sweat and hard work, including the overtime when it needs to happen. I do think the low pay affects morale, and it has a negative impact. All my coworkers are great, and we produce great work. But it could be so much better.
[This] happens in a lot of places; they just rely on the prestige because they know tons of people will be lining up for your job. But it’s sad to think about what’s lost in a bigger sense, besides our individual complaints about the low salaries. The loss of institutional knowledge and the loss of talent. I don’t see how it’s even a good business model. I’ve seen some immensely talented people leave. I’ve seen people who just couldn’t make ends meet, who left [the museum] because they were given temp positions or short-term contracts. This is not just any place to work; this is one of the most important museums in the world. People will come, work [here] for a year, and they get that on their résumé and go elsewhere. So we end up bleeding that talent.
When you meet people and tell them what you do, people are like, wow, that’s an incredible job. They don’t know you’re working for peanuts. None of us got this job because it’s lucrative. That’s not why we’re here. But being able to make ends meet and feel self-sufficient would be nice. Why are people having children later, or not having children, or not buying a house? I think this whole pattern—[which] exists in other institutions as well—is what’s contributing to a generation of people that are getting a later start in life.