St. Louis Aquarium Employees Raise Concerns About Lax COVID Rules Enforcement
Justin Bohm took an entry-level job at the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station when it opened a little over a year ago. He joined the new attraction because he wanted to teach people more about one of his favorite things — oceans.
As a guest experience associate, he helped filter thousands of guests per day through the venue's vibrant shark tanks and fish habitats.
The pandemic meant the aquarium, like many other attractions, closed down in April. But after it reopened in June, Bohm found himself increasingly anxious. He has asthma, and he worried constantly about exposing himself and his family to the coronavirus, because of lax enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing at the aquarium.
“It seemed like they just kind of gave up on caring about us, and just started caring about how we can bring in the most amount of guests to make the most amount of money,” he said.
In October, Bohm took a lower-paying job to get out of the aquarium.
He’s one of a dozen former and current employees who spoke with St. Louis Public Radio to express concerns about the working conditions there. They said managers don’t always enforce COVID-19 rules, and that’s putting employees’ health at risk.
At least 10 out of about 130 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since August, according to emails from management obtained by St. Louis Public Radio. Many others said they’ve been exposed and had to get tested.
St. Louis Aquarium Executive Director Tami Brown said management is doing everything it can to protect employees and has never broken protocol.
“It has been really tough getting everything in order for the policies and procedures to make sure our team, our animals and our guests are safe,” she said. “But that is our highest priority, and it always has been.”
Brown said the protocols currently include requiring masks, reducing capacity to 50% — as mandated by the city — and taking people’s temperatures at the door. She said that managers make regular announcements about the rules, and that all employees are expected to enforce them.
“It’s just a constant reminder,” she said. “But we also do ask our guests to take some responsibility.”
For example, she said, there are decals on the floors to encourage six-foot social distancing.
‘I feel so unsafe there’
While the rules are in place, several employees said managers don’t always follow or enforce them.
For instance, a current employee said this summer he saw Brown let in a guest who had a fever, after the person complained. We’re not using the employee's name because he fears losing his job.
“I was shocked. I was like, 'No f****** way. What's the point of any of this if the first person that comes in with a fever, we just let them in? Like, it's just to look like we're following protocols. You don't give a s***,” he said.
Brown said she’s heard that allegation before, but said, “It just didn’t happen.”
Yet multiple employees said the thermal scanner used to read temperatures doesn’t always work. They also said managers have at times encouraged them to rush guests through the temperature scan before getting an accurate read, in order to move the line along.
"I've had people like, pretty much shove me out of the way, just to get their pictures — and, I feel so unsafe there.”
Both current and former employees also worry the aquarium is letting in too many people by overselling tickets. They said it’s impossible to socially distance themselves from guests in many parts of the venue.
One current employee described how certain habitats can quickly become crowded. We’re not using her name because she fears losing her job.
“They’re so close to me, within a foot, actually,” she said. “There's one specific touch pool, it’s our doctor fish habitat, where the guests just come up, and they're trying to take pictures and everything. And I've had people like, pretty much shove me out of the way, just to get their pictures — and, I feel so unsafe there.”
Brown said the design of the aquarium can make it hard to keep people spaced out in certain areas, but she said floor decals and employees are supposed to ensure it happens.
“Guests choose to spend more time in one place than in another,” she said. “And again, it goes back to really hoping that guests will take some responsibility for this too, especially in areas where we do not have a team member stationed.”
The current employee said it’s exhausting being the one to enforce the rules, especially during busy weekends. After a recent shift, she estimated only about half of the guests were properly wearing their masks.
“I've had guests kind of get in my face when I tell them to pull their mask up or smart off to me. And then if I let management know they're just like, ‘Oh, well, there's nothing we can really do about it,’” she said.
Current and former employees said they feared for their physical health while the workplace environment took a toll on their mental health.
Taylor Hague left his job as a guest experience associate two months into the role, in October.
“It ended up being a lot more of a hostile work environment than I expected it to be,” he said. “Certainly nothing like I've come across before working for any kind of zoo or place that takes care of animals.”
Hague said he previously worked at zoos in Utah before moving to St. Louis.
Ben Eisenberg, who previously worked as an entertainer at the aquarium, experienced increased anxiety and more frequent panic attacks early on in the pandemic before the shutdown. He decided not to return to the aquarium when it reopened.
“Upper management really didn't treat the staff well. It was clear they didn't,” he said. “They went around saying that we are the most important part of the aquarium and would give us that praise, but then would not treat us with respect, wouldn't listen to us.”
The St. Louis Citizens’ Service Bureau received 34 coronavirus-related complaints last year about the St. Louis Aquarium.
That’s the third-highest number in the city during that time period, according to the CSB’s data. Start Bar received the most — 91 — and the city ordered the downtown arcade bar to shut down for two weeks in November.
The St. Louis Department of Health received most of the complaints about the aquarium this summer. They detailed accounts of the venue being too crowded and people not wearing masks, among other things. Three complaints submitted in late June documented an incident in which people said they witnessed a manager let a guest in who had a fever.
The health department director, Dr. Fredrick Echols, said his office has investigated every complaint. In fact, according to the complaint documents, the department has given verbal advice, reminding managers of the rules, on nine occasions.
But Echols said health department officials never saw anything wrong during in-person visits.
“What we’ve seen the majority of the time with the St. Louis Aquarium is that when the staff go on-site there’s compliance with city requirements, and so we take that into account,” he said.
Echols said there’s no need for further action right now. Out of all the complaints the department has received over the course of the pandemic, he said 34 is not a lot.
He also said the aquarium is not obligated to tell the public when staff members test positive for COVID-19. It is, however, required to work with the health department on contact tracing.
Brown said the city’s health department has visited several times, but she said she’s not aware of any verbal advice. She said after one such visit the aquarium did begin providing face shields for guests who said they were unable to wear masks because of a medical condition.
Employees faced internal pressure
Some former aquarium employees said they tried to get managers to listen to their concerns but instead faced retaliation.
In October, former employee Caroline Patterson helped organize employees’ grievances into a 13-page list they gave to Brown. Twenty-one guest experience associates signed the list, including Patterson, Hague, Bohm and others interviewed for this story.
It included COVID-specific concerns, among other complaints.
Shortly after submitting the list, Patterson suggested in a private group chat that employees stage a walkout in protest of the working conditions. She was called into an office where an HR manager told her she had a “‘Mean Girls’ mentality.”
“I asked to see any proof; I asked who complained, and they just said ‘management.’ And then they read me the screenshot of the message where I suggested organizing,” she said. “And then I was escorted out of the building by security.”
Patterson believes the aquarium fired her and three other employees that day for being vocal critics. She said they were all told they created a negative environment.
Matthew Bodie, a professor at St. Louis University’s School of Law, said the list of complaints and potential walkout could be considered “protected concerted activity.” That’s a legal term that he said covers employee activity, such as participating in strikes and airing grievances to management about problems with the terms and conditions of their employment.
“Which certainly, coronavirus safety practices would be very important to employees’ everyday conditions of employment,” he said.
Bodie said if employees could tie their termination directly to this activity, they could make a case about unfair labor practices to the National Labor Relations Board, which has an office in downtown St. Louis.
Patterson said she reached out to attorneys for legal advice, but she didn’t find anyone to take her case against the aquarium.
‘Absolutely a toxic work environment’
Some current employees said after Patterson and the other employees were fired, they felt stuck. They said they’re anxious and scared, but they also need a paycheck, and finding another job isn’t easy during a pandemic.
One current employee said he’s become “desensitized” to the issues he sees at the aquarium. We’re not using his name because he fears losing his job.
“I think that was really the only way I had to cope with it, was just to kind of check out. And it's not because I don't take COVID seriously or anything like that,” he said. “But I need a paycheck, and if I'm angry every single day that I go to work, then I can’t work.”
Dena Tranen, a therapist and founder of The Care Collective, said the conditions described by current and former aquarium employees indicate a toxic work environment. She said that can cause stress, anxiety and depression among employees.
“To not know if you are going to be exposed to COVID because you need a paycheck is absolutely a toxic work environment,” she said. “And for an employee to feel as if their employer, and to experience their employer as not caring about their physical and mental health, is also a toxic work environment.”
But Brown, the aquarium director, doesn’t see how it could be considered a toxic workplace.
“Honestly, in the end, it's possible that it's just not the right place for a team member.”
After receiving the list of complaints from employees, Brown said she did make some changes. She launched a culture committee, something she had already been working on, to keep employees better informed.
When asked whether employees have been fired for raising concerns, Brown said she couldn’t comment on it because it was an HR issue.
While employees who spoke with St. Louis Public Radio said their concerns fell on deaf ears, Brown said she's given employees plenty of opportunities to express those concerns — in meetings of the culture committee, on a suggestion board and to her directly.
From her point of view, she said there’s a feeling of camaraderie at the aquarium.
“If somebody is unhappy with the aquarium, I definitely want to hear from a team member what their concerns are, and we try to work,” she said. “But honestly, in the end, it's possible that it's just not the right place for a team member.”
After an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, she suggested talking with employees on duty that day.
Danielle Jacobs, a guest experience supervisor who has worked at the aquarium for nearly a year, said recent staffing changes have helped improve the work culture.
“It's definitely a drastic night-and-day difference from a couple months ago than it is to now,” she said. “We had some staff on hand who unfortunately had very different expectations for what this job was for them, and what the facility was going to be.”
Jacobs said she cares for employees who left over the last few months, and she hopes they find other jobs that make them happier. At the end of the day, she said it’s “a choice to be here.”
Many of the employees speaking out about their concerns said they joined the aquarium because they were excited to be a part of a new animal conservation effort — something that also promised to breathe new life into downtown St. Louis.
But one current employee said his expectations fell short.
“I think with Union Station opening back up and being kind of revitalizing to the downtown area, a lot of people just were very invested in it being successful, but I want people to know it came at the expense of their employees.”
Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan