The Science Museum of Minnesota has laid off 15 employees and cut another 15 vacant positions, the latest staff reductions to affect the St. Paul institution as it struggles to rebuild financially from pandemic-related revenue losses.
CEO Alison Rempel Brown told employees that the nonprofit was recovering from the pandemic more slowly than anticipated, and that a revenue shortfall meant it needed to cut staffing before the budget year ends in June.
The number of museum visitors is down by a third, and revenue has declined by $10 million compared with 2019 before the outbreak of COVID-19. Donations are also down by a third.
"It has been a challenging year, and I know that changes like these, and the uncertainty surrounding them, are unsettling for everyone," Brown said in her message to employees.
The Science Museum furloughed almost all its employees in early 2020 after shutting its doors at the start of the pandemic. That summer, the museum laid off nearly 40% of its workforce.
Natalie Naranjo was laid off for a second time last week, after being laid off three years ago and then being rehired.
"The museum kept us in the dark again and then made a big choice that impacted us and not leadership — again," she said.
Naranjo, a former high school math teacher, worked with students before she was laid off in 2020. Lately she had been working to boost diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
She said she was surprised that more layoffs were needed after employees were told at staff meetings not to expect more layoffs. Earlier this year Science Museum employees voted to join AFSCME Council 5, joining peers at a growing number of nonprofits such as the Minnesota Historical Society that unionized during the pandemic.
Naranjo said the 15 recent layoffs disproportionately affected employees of color and union supporters. She's one of eight Black, Indigenous and people of color employees who were laid off, and she was on the union organizing committee.
In her note to employees, Brown said that museum leaders considered various factors in deciding who to cut, including seniority, overstaffed areas, functions that can be redesigned and "ways in which we can do work differently." Brown added that employees who lost their jobs would be paid two to 12 weeks of severance.
Naranjo said union leaders are upset the museum didn't bargain with them to establish layoff conditions first. The two sides haven't started contract negotiations yet.
"Now that we've organized, we have rights," she said.
In response to worker concerns, museum leaders said they communicated the restructuring in advance to the union. "These difficult decisions to stabilize the museum have impacted our entire organization," they said, "but were necessary to ensure the museum continues its recovery from the financial challenges of the past few years and is sustainable into the future."
Before the layoffs, the Science Museum had about 350 employees, about 30% below pre-pandemic staffing levels. The museum is seeking $3 million in state funding this year, or about $2 million in extra funding, and a one-time payment of $12.3 million to pay off the construction debt for its 1999 facility on the Mississippi River bluffs.
Naranjo said she hopes the public continues to support the Science Museum, despite the layoffs. But she also said the public needs to help hold leaders there accountable.
"There are clearly things that need to change within the sector because these things continue to happen," she said, adding that places like the Science Museum say they value equity but "are making choices like this."