October 4, 2021

A report by AFSCME Cultural Workers United (CWU), “Cultural Institutions Cashed In, Workers Got Sold Out,” finds that cultural workers with union representation were more protected from workforce reductions and better able to negotiate for safe working conditions.

AFSCME CWU calls for greater accountability from cultural institutions that were supposed to use pandemic aid to keep workers on the job.

WASHINGTON – AFSCME Cultural Workers United released a new report today taking a critical look at museums, zoos, historical sites and other institutions that received the largest amount of federal pandemic aid: “Cultural Institutions Cashed In, Workers Got Sold Out.” The report reveals that the nation’s cultural institutions accepted more than $1.6 billion in federal aid to weather the pandemic but continued to lay off workers.

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the assistance specifically allocated through the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) was intended to help recipients “maintain their payroll, hire back employees who may have been laid off, and cover applicable overhead.” However, upon further investigation into federal data, institutions’ audited financial statements and media accounts, AFSCME CWU found that 228 of the nation’s biggest cultural institutions received $771.4 million in PPP loans but collectively cut 14,400 jobs during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, upper management and directors at the nation’s museums and other cultural institutions continued to get paid exorbitant six- and seven-figure salaries.

“Cultural institutions such as art and history museums, which rely little on earned revenue, did not suffer the financial blow that was anticipated. In fact, some of those with the largest budgets laid off thousands of employees and ended FY 2020 with budget surpluses,” the report details.

Ace Ubas, a retail coordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, said the museum’s decision to lay off about 100 of its most vulnerable employees despite receiving millions of dollars in federal aid has underscored the importance of their effort to unionize and win a fair contract.

“They could’ve used the funding to keep staff and create digital programming, so we could meet the needs of our community that was now online. Instead, we were told to go home,” says Ubas, who was furloughed during the pandemic. “We are still fighting through our union to get co-workers back to work. We are also using our current contract negotiations to influence the museum’s priorities and demand they invest in their most important asset, us.”

While AFSCME-CWU’s report showcases how unions are playing an important role in stopping or reversing worker cutbacks during the pandemic, it also highlights the need for stricter federal scrutiny to hold loan recipients accountable to investing in their workers and for stronger labor laws.

For interview requests or questions about the report, please contact Kat Cancio at