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Disgruntled ‘Immersive Van Gogh’ Workers Are Finally Getting Their Legally Mandated Sick Pay

'Worker morale is terrible,' a former assistant manager tells Racket.

@mtaphotos

Critics hated “Immersive Van Gogh,” the $40-$55 “unforgettable art experience” that launched last August in northeast Minneapolis. 

Our critic/commentator Devohn Bland didn’t care for the exhibit’s “projections of animated versions of Van Gogh paintings straight out of a Van Gogh GIF Tumblr account circa 2012.” The Star Tribune’s Alicia Eler called the event—which Toronto-based production company Lighthouse Immersive stages throughout the U.S.—a “sad excuse for art.” 

It seems workers at “Immersive Van Gogh” aren’t impressed either. 

Two weeks ago, now-former manager Quang-Minh Tran issued a Reddit post titled “The Immersive Van Gogh exhibit is violating Minneapolis labor laws. Don’t give it your money.” In it, Tran alleged that Lighthouse Immersive failed to comply with Minneapolis’s Sick & Safe Time ordinance, which guarantees workers one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked. 

That public call-out was not his first attempt to inform Lighthouse about its ongoing labor-law violation. 

“I alerted [Lighthouse] COO Greg Holland, as well as the producers by email on November 14,” Tran tells Racket. “And he essentially indicated that HR has been made aware, and added a snarky blurb about not needing to be told what to do.”

(We reviewed screen-grabs of the exchange and can confirm Holland’s snarky blurb that read: “No need for the paragraph about the company’s obligations.”)

A few days later, Tran contacted the HR official Holland cited, and she was apparently still unaware of the Sick & Safe Time violation. On December 6, after weeks of radio silence from Lighthouse execs, Tran and two other managers met with Lighthouse HR consultant Colton Heier, who allegedly told them the sick pay issue is “something they’d look into.” Two weeks later, Tran reached out to local Redditors, ending his post with a plea of “Please help us.” 

On December 31,  Lighthouse President Corey Ross sent an apology memo to the Minneapolis staff, informing them that current and former Lighthouse workers are entitled to future and retroactive sick pay. The blame was placed squarely on third-party payroll provider Paylocity. 

“We failed to double-check their work,” Ross wrote. “For that I apologize. It was never our intention to not follow rules.” 

While Tran alleges Lighthouse only took action when the sick pay issue went public, PR rep Nick Harkin says the company “immediately” contacted Paylocity. “It took a little while for the payroll company to do the math,” he says. 

Katie Rein, who left her assistant manager position this week, doesn’t buy it. 

“This company is about trying to save face, that is their No. 1 concern and it always has been,” Rein says. “Unfortunately, they’re not that great at it. It’s more of a question of why weren’t you doing this when it came onto your radar a month and a half ago.” 

“Worker morale is terrible,” she adds, and has “been going downhill for months.” That’s partially due to overpromising available hours, Rein says, as well as a lack of operational transparency. An internal petition to remove the general manager has attracted 25 signatures; the breakroom “doesn’t really have any furniture in it… or a sink or cabinetry,” Tran says. Not offering sick pay during a pandemic, Rein observes, didn’t exactly endear workers to Lighthouse.

At its peak, “Immersive Van Gogh” employed around 70 Twin Cities workers. That figure is down to about 40, Tran reports.   

“In the last month we’ve lost about 22 people–supervisors, leads, host, management,” Rein says. “It’s a lack of organization; they expanded too rapidly. It’s all of the stereotypical start-up issues, but they’re not doing enough to make sure they’re cleaning up the damage they’re causing.”

“It’s incredibly uncomfortable, you could cut the tension with a knife,” an anonymous current host tells Racket. After the Reddit post went live, she says, workers were warned not to speak to the media. “It’s very disheartening to constantly feel like you’re picking a battle with your management over health, especially when we’re still very much in a pandemic,” she says. 

The situation in Minneapolis apparently doesn’t seem so dire to Lighthouse Immersive. 

“In general staff seems happy,” says Harkin, the Lighthouse PR rep, adding that turnover is commonplace across industries. “As far as media inquiries, Lighthouse Immersive prefers to have their PR people deal with the media.”

Why are workers fighting back instead of simply getting better jobs elsewhere? 

“There’s not much we have left to lose,” says the young host we spoke to. “We’ve dealt with managers who’ve treated us almost subhuman or as a corporate number. A lot of us have gotten sick of that: We want them to know we value our own worth, even if they don’t. I know that my labor is worth money and I should get paid for my labor.” 

That level of solidarity and outspokenness “kinda blows my mind,” Rein says. It’s the same sentiment we heard over and over from workers during Striketober.

“It’s inspiring to work with a bunch of people, many of whom are very young, and they’re just super progressive and ready to stand up for themselves,” she says. “Because of Covid and the world we’re living in now, people just feel so much more empowered to push back.”

“Immersive Van Gogh” runs through February 27.