WASHINGTON - Between 3 and 4 p.m. on Monday, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture was supposed to be closed, security personnel say an unidentified man walked in through an exit-only door, bypassing metal detectors and screening procedures. The intruder was in the museum's nearly empty main lobby when a maintenance worker noticed him and helped security escort him outside.
But while the Smithsonian museum's priceless treasures were undisturbed, some of its employees are sounding the alarm. They say the breach happened because the museum is so short-staffed that no guard was posted at the door.
"He was in the building for more than five minutes. He could have been armed, had explosives. He definitely wasn't supposed to come in," said Tanesha Sollers, who works as an armed security guard for the museum. "There was no officer there, nobody to stop him."
Officer Antonio Currie, who was working elsewhere in the building at the time, said the incident "freaked people out."
Related video: Is the Capitol any safer a year after Jan. 6th?
Monday's event might be the most visible and disturbing example of the impact of the severe staff shortages on the Smithsonian and other arts and cultural organizations in the Washington region. The highly transmissible omicron variant has led to record numbers of covid cases, and more than 250 have been reported among Smithsonian staff since Christmas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman said.
The shortage of staff forced the Smithsonian to close some buildings and reduce public hours at most of its museums and the National Zoo for a two-week period ending Jan. 17. Those reductions are expected to be extended. The hours of operation for individual museums can be found at si.edu/visit.
Leaders of the American Federation of Government Workers Local 2463, the union representing security and maintenance staff, are calling on the Smithsonian to shut down all its public venues, saying the reductions aren't doing enough to protect their members, the public and the valuable art and artifacts on display.
Union leaders say the problems exist across all Smithsonian museums, but five current and former security personnel at the African American Museum say their building is at crisis level. Unarmed guards are sometimes assigned to posts usually staffed by armed personnel, important posts have been left vacant, and at least one emergency door was locked with stanchions blocking it, the officers say.
Doug Hall, the Smithsonian's acting deputy undersecretary for administration and its coordinating officer for covid response, rejected those allegations. He said that the reduced schedule has allowed the museums to be adequately staffed and that visitors, staff and the collections are safe.
"Our day-to-day number of officers protecting the museums has not changed," he said. The Smithsonian has 750 on its security force, about 525 of whom are needed daily when museums are open. The African American Museum alone requires at least 55.
An initial internal investigation into Monday's incident found that an officer at a different entrance did not check the credentials of a person who went in, Hall said, denying there was a breach from an unlocked exit door, as Sollers alleges. When told that was an older incident, the Smithsonian reviewed the security footage. Dylan Garon, associate director of security operations, confirmed that "a man casually walked in" on Monday but said the incident was "so minor" it was not reported.
While armed officers are preferred at the front desk at the African American Museum, unarmed personnel are used when the building is closed to the public, and the risk is lower, to reduce overtime required of armed officers, Garon said. Hall also said it was an emergency door at the American History Museum that was chained last year when the museum was closed to the public. No officer was supposed to be posted there and the locked door followed safety codes, he said.
The week after Christmas - traditionally one of the busiest of the year - the Smithsonian closed five museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum and the Asian art museums (the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery), through Jan 5. The closures allowed the institution to reassign front-line personnel from less-visited facilities to the larger ones on the National Mall, officials said at the time.
A different schedule was rolled out on Jan. 5, when the Smithsonian dramatically reduced operations at most of its sites - including the National Zoo - and closed the Anacostia Community Museum and the National Air and Space Museum. The decision was made because the spike in cases and resulting staff shortages showed no signs of abating.
The zoo, which had been open daily, was cut to five days, while seven other museums had their days and hours reduced further. Three of the most visited - the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History and the African American Museum, - maintained their five-day schedules, and the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle, and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., remain open daily.
Union officials have been voicing their fears for several weeks, said Robert Youngblood, executive vice president of Local 2463, but the Smithsonian isn't listening. He said cleaning workers recently sent to sanitize the security control room where he works wore white protective jumpsuits and other gear to complete the task, while the security personnel who spend multiple hours there are given only "gloves and those little white masks."
"If you go to work, you're rolling the dice with your life," Youngblood said. Workers from many Smithsonian museums are calling the union office to ask for help. "People are calling to say, 'I don't want to go into that building.' A lot of employees are scared to death."
The Smithsonian is trying to do right by both its employees and the public it serves, Hall said.
"We're operating very safely," Hall said, noting that 95 percent of employees have complied with its vaccination requirement and that they continue to follow protocols that include mandatory masks and social distancing. "The risk from the public to the staff is minimal. We have had no confirmed cases of staff to public or public to staff."
The shortage of security personnel stretches back years, union officials say. In a letter sent to Smithsonian leaders earlier this month, Local 2463 President Reginald Booth said officers regularly work extra shifts. But the shortage caused by covid has meant fewer officers working longer hours, including some who had to work 24 hours straight, Booth said.
"We need to be closed until we can get properly staffed, until we don't have to exhaust ourselves and work all this overtime. You're made to do it. It's putting your health and mental (health) in a bad space," Sollers said. "It is so terrible to feel like you're being used."
Mark Wallace, director of the Smithsonian's Office of Protection Services, emailed his staff on Monday, around the same time as the incident at the African American Museum, to remind them that 16 hours is the most anyone can be asked to work, "except under extreme circumstances and an emergency declaration by the Secretary."
"Our employees' safety and well-being is our primary concern," he wrote in the email. "Exceeding this limit is unhealthy and puts all staff, visitors and our collections at risk."