Living History Fiasco

COVID-19 response exposes long-simmering tensions between management and workers at central Iowa history museum

A photograph of Caroline Schoonover, third from left, as a young girl with her family at Living History Farms. Photo courtesy of Caroline Schoonover

On March 13, after repeatedly raising concerns about the fast-developing COVID-19 pandemic, Caroline Schoonover, a seven-year veteran at Urbandale’s Living History Farms, was effectively fired from her job as a historic interpreter.

Schoonover claims that LHF management pushed her out after she expressed concerns about the safety of customers and staff, but she also indicated that her firing was the culmination of long-simmering tensions between management and employees at the central Iowa history museum.

Developed from a former prison-labor farm in the 1970s, the Living History Farms museum specializes in giving visitors an immersive experience through tours of farm sites that authentically recreate eras in Iowa’s pre- and post-colonial history through the 19th and early 20th century.

Schoonover first brought concerns about the coronavirus crisis quickly gripping the nation on March 10, in an email sent to her direct supervisor and LHF President Ruth Haus. Along with voicing her general concerns about the virus, she asked what kind of plan management had for protecting its workers and visitors during upcoming planned events like the spring break day camp for children and a historic dinner program that attracted many elderly visitors.

In a statement released to employees and the public the next day, LHF leadership indicated that the day camp and historic dinners would continue as normal. The statement didn’t advise any changes to either program and only noted that hand sanitizer would be available. Schoonover felt her fears about continuing the program were confirmed by what she saw at the historic dinner later that night.

“Truthfully, I could not believe we were carrying on with this program.”

“The party that ate were three different groups of strangers, totaling 10 people,” Schoonover told the Informer. “For the historic dinners they are sat in a historic dining room elbow to elbow around a table, at which they share a family style meal. I spent considerable time thinking about how cramped the mostly elderly guests were, and was unable to reach the hand washing sink in the bathroom because of how crowded the dining room was. I was alarmed by one guest excusing herself to have a coughing fit, and another shared about the cruise she had recently been on. Truthfully, I could not believe we were carrying on with this program.”

After voicing her concerns with her direct supervisor and other members of the management team — including on the company’s intranet, for which she was chastised by management — Schoonover was invited to speak with a group of managers that included Staci Harper Bennett, sales director of guest experiences. The question was put upon Schoonover, despite her status as lower-level employee: How would she suggest making guest dinners and other activities safe for dinner guests and those in other programs?

Schoonover felt she could not recommend that the dinners or visitor programs be allowed to continue in any form, as there would be no way to ensure compliance with social distancing guidelines or any other CDC recommendations about avoiding the spread of COVID-19. After the meeting came to an impasse, Schoonover told her bosses that she would not work her shifts serving historic dinners for the next two weeks and would not ask any of her co-workers to jeopardize their own health by replacing her.

Shortly after this meeting, Haus acknowledged in an email that Schoonover was self-quarantining, but sent mixed messages regarding her status at the workplace. Haus told Schoonover that her status as an employee was considered “temporarily not working,” but also told her that she would need to meet with her, her direct supervisor, and a human resources representative in order to return to her job and that LHF would be actively looking to replace her in the meantime. Schoonover’s access to the employee intranet and work email was also withdrawn.

On March 17, five days after Schoonover’s effective firing, the museum was closed after Governor Kim Reynolds shuttered many public establishments in Polk County and throughout the state. Though she had only missed two scheduled shifts by quarantining early, Schoonover received no official communication about the closure.

Schoonover’s decision to take a stand out of fear for her own health, the health of her co-workers, and the health of LHF visitors was not one arrived at quickly. It was a decision influenced by a lifelong relationship with the museum, her many years of working there, and a growing tension between LHF management and the employees largely responsible for the operation of the museum.

“[Living History Farms is] unable to discuss the matter publicly in accordance with our privacy and human resource policies.”

Most children growing up in Iowa have been touched by LHF’s programming. Thousands visit the historic farms on school field trips that occur throughout the year. For Schoonover, however, the museum played an especially significant role in her childhood. As a young girl, she visited an uncle who worked at the museum and went on to volunteer along with her sister and mother as she grew older. An early childhood spent immersed in the history of Iowa greatly influenced her decision to focus her secondary education in history and agriculture.

Schoonover began working at LHF in 2013, beginning as a gift shop attendant before working her way up to positions of responsibility in the museum’s period-specific farmsteads. By that time, Haus had been president of LHF for five years, having taken the job in 2008 as the culmination of a career that included stints as CEO of the Des Moines Symphony, vice president of corporate communications for the US Chamber of Commerce, and deputy political director of the Republican National Committee in the mid-1990s.

During her first years at LHF, Schoonover claims she found herself sympathizing with Haus and often defended financial decisions the president made to more irate co-workers. This changed quickly in 2016, as Schoonover began to grow more concerned about the general state of the museum’s operations. After watching the museum’s budget continue to tighten over the years, a general state of disrepair that had encroached across the museum’s facilities, and the stagnation of salaries for employees who did the bulk of the difficult work at the working farm museum, she found she could no longer stay silent.

Historic interpreters at LHF like Schoonover, who make up the bulk of its workforce and are responsible for maintaining the historic farmsteads, make between $9 and $15 an hour, the high end of which is still about half of what’s considered a living wage in Iowa, while also educating museum guests. These are men and women wearing stifling period clothes who work hot days in the sun and weather the deep-freeze of Iowa winters while maintaining a working farm and caring for livestock, mostly with the use of period-authentic tools. Like their true historical counterparts, the women of LHF do most of the cooking for the historic dinners, preparing the food using traditional techniques and era-appropriate cookware.

In response to employee concerns about low pay, Haus mandated in 2017 that LHF employees making the lowest amount of money ($9 to $10) attend a presentation on financial planning (the minimum wage in Iowa has been $7.25 since 2008). According to the nonprofit’s 2019 tax return, the museum brought in nearly $3 million in revenue the previous year. Haus herself was paid more than $150,000.

A Living History Farms employee acting as a baseball umpire explains 1900s-era rules during the musuem’s annual grain harvest and historic baseball event in August 2017. Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

More problems arose in 2017. According to Schoonover, Haus attempted to put into motion a plan to throw away a large portion of LHF’s permanent collection. This would have violated museum best practices, according to Schoonover. She also claims that when Luis Vasquez, the current registrar and collections manager at LHF, refused to do as Haus asked, he was written up (Vasquez could not be reached for comment).

In 2019, Schoonover claims that Haus outed a young volunteer as transgender, despite employees having just attended a presentation on protected classes and workplace discrimination. When she followed up with Haus about the issue, Haus said that because she didn’t name the volunteer, it wasn’t a problem.

Later that year, the firing of a historic interpreter further widened the gulf between management and workers at LHF. The employee in question was fired for drinking on LHF property. The employee was not on the clock at the time and had been joined by several other employees, including members of the management team, and was fired along with two maintenance staffers for the offense. In response, Schoonover signed a letter along with six other LHF employees, outlining concerns about understaffing and petitioning for the reinstatement of the fired employee.

In response to this petition, Haus accused her employees of focusing too much on workplace “drama” in a company-wide meeting. Schoonover is not a stranger to publicly demanding and working to support workers. She’s been the co-chair of the Central Iowa chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America since 2017. At the end of 2019, just months before the coronavirus took hold, Schoonover was retaliated against for her part in speaking out against management with her first negative review as an employee at LHF since she was hired in 2013. She said she received a subsequent demotion.

Just a few months later, she was effectively fired after raising health concerns that only slightly preceded the forced closure of the museum.

When presented with Schoonover’s claims about LHF’s coronavirus response and ongoing tensions at the museum, an LHF representative said they are “unable to discuss the matter publicly in accordance with our privacy and human resource policies.”

After the Informer reached out to LHF for comment on April 15, Schoonover received an email from Haus claiming Schoonover was never fired, that she simply needed to meet with the president and other supervisors to get her job back, and that she instead agreed to accept her resignation.

Correction: This article previously said that a historic interpreter was the only employee fired over an incident involving drinking on Living History Farms property. Two others were also fired, but not any of the managers involved.