The Plight of Museum Guards in New York Museums

Fred Wilson,
Fred Wilson, “Guarded View” (1991) (photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

If you want to be a museum security guard, you better know how to stand.

Guards in New York City’s museums spend most of their shifts on their feet — usually four to eight hours at a time. They should also be able to carry as much as 25 pounds, trudge up and down flights of stairs several times during their shifts, and jump, bend, and run into action if a situation occurs.

Sometimes security guards must inspect bags and packages at museum entrances. They operate elevators and collect jackets from patrons at coat check rooms. And they often help escort people transporting priceless works of art into and out of the museum.

A bachelor’s degree helps, although it is not always required, as does familiarity with the museum’s collection. The ability to direct a disoriented tourist to the Costume Institute or the Discovery Room is appreciated. A guard must always be alert and prepared for the unexpected.

“The demands are you have to be physically fit as well as mentally fit for duty and given the crazy world — active shooters, bombers — you have to be alert and on your feet at all times,” said Reggie Qadar, an attendant guard at the American Museum of Natural History and former president of District Council 37’s Local 1306, which represents the museum’s security workforce.

Duane Hanson,
Duane Hanson, “Museum Guard” (photo by Rebecca Partington/Flickr)

These days, many guards must also learn to use complex digital technologies to observe hallways and crevices and communicate with other guards quickly. Qadar works shifts in a security control room where he monitors video screens to identify museum guests, takes photographs and outside calls, and records data on computers.

“We have to be digitally sophisticated, use radios, and camera gadgetry,” he said. “We’re going through a whole transformation industrywide because of the digital age.”

The field is certainly growing. The number of private security guards statewide swelled by 13% from 60,222 in 2012 to 68,015 in 2016, state records show. In New York City alone there were 48,142 private security guards in 2016, according to state records, more than the 37,000 uniformed officers in the NYPD.

What has not transformed all that much are the wages. Average yearly pay for security guards across New York State rose a mere 9% over the past five years, from $26,353 in 2012 to $28,635 in 2016, according to state Department of Labor records. In Manhattan, where most of the larger cultural institutions are located, average pay rose 7% from 28,052 to $30,051 over the same period, state records show.

Security guards’ salaries were less than half the state’s annual median income of $62,909 in 2015 and Manhattan’s median income, which is just under $67,000, US Census records show. But Manhattan’s museum guard salaries are squarely in the middle of the industry’s standard.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art pays its new security guards a rate of $14.08 per hour. That’s only a dollar over the city’s current $13 minimum wage and equivalent to an annual salary of $29,306. After two years of service, guard salaries do rise 15% to $33,702 per year, or $16.14 an hour. And starting salaries will move up to at least $15 per hour when the state’s minimum wage law goes fully into effect at the end of the year, a union rep said.

This is at a place where museum guards are unionized. The 474 security guards at the Met and its satellites the Met Breuer and the Cloisters have a guaranteed 40-hour work week with overtime, health care, and vacation benefits, according to a DC 37 spokesman. A rep from the Met did not return emails requesting comment.

Other cultural institutions with unions offer comparable salaries and benefits for their guards.

The 186 guards at the American Natural History Museum, whom DC 37 also represents, have the same salary scale and benefits package as their colleagues at the Met. Attendants at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum earn $17.68 per hour to start and get health insurance, up to five weeks paid vacation, and sick leave, according to an organizer from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 32B, which reps officers there.

A guard at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by jphilipg/Flickr)
A guard at the Museum of Modern Art (photo by jphilipg/Flickr)

The union also represents Museum of Modern Art guards, whose salaries can rise to $20 per hour, but the SEIU rep did not know the starting hourly rate. A MoMA spokeswoman would not discuss employee compensation.

Salary levels at non-unionized museums are often closer to minimum wage, benefits are scarce, and workers can receive irregular schedules with shifts at different times, industry sources said. And sometimes, abuses can occur in that environment. Guards at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC recently accused their managers of tolerating sexual harassment and discrimination, and punishing those who spoke up, according to the Washington Post.

Several museums — including the Whitney Museum of Art, New Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and the Guggenheim — declined to make their pay scale public or did not reply to emails. Job postings indicate that guard salaries at the Jewish Museum range from $15 to $17 per hour and compensation for a part-time security guard position at the Brooklyn Historical Society is $16 per hour.

And some museums use security subcontractors, which staff guards in office buildings throughout the region. At least one firm, Allied Universal, works with several city museums to provide security services, but a spokeswoman declined to name any of them.

Since security guard pay at museums across the board is near minimum wage, many guards in unionized and non-unionized museums work two or more jobs in order to earn a living income.

“We have many people who work with us and actually work another job with a contract security company,” said Qadar. “They will get hired for our shift and do 40 hours here and when they’re off they do a part-time or full-time shift at an office building or another museum.”

As the security sector grows, labor unions have been making inroads to organize workers across the industry.

“All of the hardworking men and women who keep our city’s private and public cultural institutions safe and secure deserve a living wage, decent benefits, and a voice in the workplace,” said DC 37 spokesman Rudy Orozco. “That’s certainly what we’ve always sought for our members.”

But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee higher wages. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has an endowment of $2.5 billion and $390 million in revenue, paid its outgoing CEO Thomas Campbell $1,428,935 in total compensation, which included a salary of $942,287, according to 2015 tax fillings.

On March 1, the Met began charging a mandatory $25 admissions fee to out-of-state visitors in order to close the museum’s $10 million deficit from the 2017 fiscal year. A new guard would have to work one hour and 47 minutes of a shift in order to afford the non-New Yorker entry fee to the museum.

Qadar said he’s noticed non-unionized museums “step up” their pay rate to prevent turnover and losses to a union museum where hours are more stable.

“You don’t want to lose people overnight and that’s one of the problems they were having with these contract companies,” he said. “Whether you have a union or not, you have to have loyal employees.”

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