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Pandemic layoffs at Mystic Seaport were permanent

As a casual observer of the pandemic layoffs at Mystic Seaport Museum — just reading news stories about the shutdown last spring — I certainly had the impression employees would be called back when the health crisis subsided.

"Seaport, aquarium and YMCA lay off staff but pledge comeback," was a headline in The Day on March 26 last year.

Indeed, seaport spokesman Dan McFadden told Connecticut Public Radio at the time that saying goodbye, "temporarily as it may be," was difficult.

"We cut everything we could before we had to turn to reducing our workforce," McFadden told the public radio network at the time. "So when we are given the green light, we are going to work as fast as we can to reconstitute our staff."

It turns out that's not really true.

The seaport has called back only about a third of those laid off, and while it is planning to ramp up hiring for the coming season, none of the rest of the laid-off workers are assured of getting hired back, the seaport's new president, Peter Armstrong, acknowledged in an interview this week.

The official number of layoffs in the notification to the state last spring was 199, but Armstrong said the actual number was more like 153 after subtracting some who were working only occasionally and a small number of hours.

Some 54 have been rehired and seasonal hiring could bring on 36 new employees for the coming summer, he said.

I reached out for answers about seaport employees after hearing from some of them who say they are frustrated that so many people in the community don't know that so many longtime seaport employees, some of whom have been there decades, have been permanently let go.

"There wasn't even a chance to give anyone a retirement party," one of the employees told me. None of the employees I talked to was willing to identify themselves in the newspaper, holding out hope they might get recalled or worried about needing job references.

Curiously, everyone I talked to seemed more worried about the long-term loss for the seaport of so much collective experience than losing their own jobs.

Much of the interpretive department has been lost, museum employees who demonstrate skills like blacksmithing, wood carving and launching the whale boats or raising the sails on the Charles W. Morgan.

To be fair, everyone I spoke to said it was made clear at the time that the layoffs were permanent.

Both Armstrong and McFadden emphasized that employees were very clearly told that they were being permanently let go.

Still, I understand why, at that moment of the unfolding pandemic, employees might have thought that the characterization was a legal technicality allowing them to collect unemployment benefits. It was hard to think a job they did for decades would suddenly be gone forever.

Certainly, as a casual observer in the community, I believed the public characterization of the layoffs as temporary.

Armstrong said the elimination of the interpretation jobs is essentially a reworking of the museum's organization and the way it is positioning itself for the future.

"We are not going to be in a position to bring back what we had in pre-COVID times," he said. "Anyone who thinks you can return to the status quo after COVID is mistaken. You have to relook at the model."

That's a fair point, and yet, as a casual observer, I can't help but think that, were it not for the cover of a pandemic, it would have been much harder for a new president to reorganize programming and leave behind dozens of longtime, dedicated employees.

Interpretive employees I talked to say the museum plans to replace them with volunteers. They say they are especially frustrated because the new president was hired during the pandemic and never personally saw the work they did and contributions they made to the museum experience.

McFadden said, in an answer to a question, that the seaport applied for and received in April a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, a system designed to help organizations keep their workforces intact. It seems way too late for that to me.

None of this feels to me like the old Mystic Seaport, with respect for its place in the community, that so many of us have come to cherish over the years.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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