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Workers say Museum of Science demoted them for not upselling visitors

The Museum of Science in 2013.
The Museum of Science in 2013.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File

A shake-up at the Museum of Science has the visitor services staff up in arms, with a recent department-wide reorganization prompting employees to voice concerns that they are being pressured into “taking as much money as possible from visitors.”

A number of workers at one of Boston’s top tourist destinations say they are no longer allowed to work in the box office because they didn’t sell enough memberships, a change that to them felt like a demotion.

In recent years, there has been a stronger push to get new members, sell extra shows, and set up automatic membership renewals, employees said, including to families who live overseas or are relying on a child for translation. Those who haven’t hit their sales goals have been given warnings and denied raises, they said, and at least one part-time employee was given an ultimatum, a co-worker said: Reach your goals or lose your shifts.

Several employees in the 44-person department have left in the past month, workers said, and several more are looking for new jobs.

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A museum spokesman confirmed that the department was recently reorganized but denied that there has been an increased emphasis on sales goals, which he noted have been in place for almost two decades. The job changes were intended to create specialized roles that address staff needs and improve their success and job satisfaction, he said.

But a group of about a dozen employees say their jobs are now decidedly worse. The outcry began in late September, following a meeting announcing new titles and duties that revived longstanding distaste for the museum’s hard-sell tactics, they said.

For some, schedules were altered and hours cut back with little warning, causing them to worry about whether they’d be able to make their rent or take their elderly parents to doctors’ appointments. Some employees, including several veteran workers, were relegated to what they consider “bottom of the ladder” jobs as operations representatives overseeing entry to the main exhibits, theaters, and other venues.

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In an anonymous letter to the department director, drafted on behalf of the disgruntled employees and slipped into the suggestion box last week, the workers said: “We have worked hard for you, some of us for ten years or more, supporting our families and putting food on our tables. But even the most dedicated of us have begun to see that the goals of the Visitor Services department have less to do with providing a world-class learning experience and more with taking as much money as possible from visitors and keeping it in a select few pockets.”

Management has been holding a series of meetings with the visitor services staff about the changes, including several this week.

No one has been fired in recent years for not meeting sales goals, said Todd Sperry, senior vice president of marketing and communication at the museum, and the three visitor services employees who have left since the changes were announced are consistent with attrition rates in previous years.

Sperry would not provide sales goals details, but documentation provided by an employee shows that 11 percent of daily transactions are expected to be converted into annual memberships ($140 for a family of five); 46 percent of those should be premier memberships, with more guest passes and free parking ($175 for five); and 30 percent of them should include automatic renewals. Twenty-eight percent of daily transactions need to include an “upsell” for a show that isn’t included in admission, such as Body Worlds.

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Pushing additional sales and products is common at many companies, but the disgruntled employees at the Museum of Science say the practice is more strict and stressful and feels more like a “con” than at other places they’ve worked.

Within the last few years, employees said, they started getting coached on how to meet their sales goals, and a list of staffers who have made their goals is now posted in the break room. And as of late September, employees who didn’t consistently make their sales targets were barred from working at the box office, where they earned a $2 commission for every membership sold.

Brian McGrath, who worked at the museum from 2009 to 2016, said during his time there he experienced a shift in focus from making guests happy to getting “as much money as we could from them.” He recalled, for example, being pressured to sell tickets to the IMAX movie “Africa: The Serengeti,” including to families with young children, despite the fact that it contained scenes of animals eating animals and previous visitors had reported that it traumatized their children.

“The museum mistreats its workers and is currently exploiting its staff and its visitors for profit,” he wrote in an e-mail. “If you care about the city and if you care about people in general, it should bother you that an institution which markets itself as a leading provider of educational family fun is employing dirty tactics and ignoring the welfare of its dedicated staff in order to take visitors for as much as they can.”

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The changes come during a year of upheaval at the nonprofit museum, whose exhibits attracted nearly 1.5 million visitors in 2018, making it the most popular museum in the city. Longtime president Ioannis Miaoulis, who made $626,000 in total compensation in fiscal year 2017, left in January, and a permanent replacement has not been named. In May, interim president Wayne Bouchard announced a plan to reduce labor costs in a year that he said has been “more challenging than most, as rising costs continue to outpace revenues.” By July, 29 employees were gone as a result of voluntary retirements and layoffs.

Total operating income at the museum, which includes admissions and memberships, as well as gifts and grants, has fluctuated from $66.2 million in fiscal year 2016 to $62.1 million in 2017 to $63.9 million in 2018.

In all, Sperry said, 13 employees who previously worked shifts in the box office were moved exclusively to operations roles, noting that sales positions usually take employees’ numbers into consideration. The “vast majority” of employees kept or increased their hours, he added, and adjustments were made for others if they requested it.

The museum has invested approximately $200,000 annually in the department, Sperry said, including increasing the minimum wage from $13 to $15 an hour a month after the reorganization was announced, which he said more than makes up for the loss of commissions for lower performers. Five positions have been added and schedules were revamped to give everyone two consecutive days off (including, for most, a weekend day). A coffee and snack bar was created for staff, and they are no longer required to wear uniforms.

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The major driver of all these changes was feedback from staff, he said. And there are now more opportunities for advancement.

Employees question the timing of the raise, however, noting that it came on the heels of widespread discontent. Sperry said the wage increase was long in the works and unrelated.

A longtime full-time employee who made $14.42 an hour before the raise had her hours cut so much — reducing her monthly income by $400 — that she worried about paying her rent. When she protested, her manager told her to sign up for extra shifts on her days off, she said.

Her hours have since been restored, and the raise helps. But she is looking for another job.

“I can honestly say I don’t feel valued as an employee,” the worker, who asked not to be identified because she feared retribution, wrote in an e-mail.

Amanda MacDougald, a “casual” part-timer who usually works only during busy times of the year, said she was concerned about longtime employees’ ability to make a living.

“The goal for us is not to raise hell for no reason,” said MacDougald, who wrote the grievance letter. “We want to make sure we’re treated with respect.”

Sperry, the museum spokesman, did not directly respond to employees’ concerns about the pressure to bring in revenue.

“Our first and foremost activity is making sure first that people feel comfortable and welcome here,” he said, “and two, that we blow their minds and help them understand the world around them.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.