ROME – Nearly 50 employees of the Vatican Museums have initiated a labor dispute with the Holy See over what they allege are poor, unfair and unsafe working conditions, which could result in a class action lawsuit against Pope Francis’s administration.

First reported by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the complaint has been lodged by 49 out of roughly 700 employees of the Vatican Museums – 47 custodians, an art restorer, and a bookshop employee – represented by Italian lawyer Laura Sgrò, who handles several other high-profile cases involving the Holy See.

In a petition sent to Cardinal Fernando Vèrgez Alzaga, president of the Government of the Vatican City State, Sgrò claimed that current rules cause “labor conditions undermining each workers’ health and dignity.”

“The poor management is evident, which would be even more serious if it were the result of the sole logic of obtaining greater profits,” she said.

Sgrò’s letter marks the first step in a mandatory conciliation process under Vatican law, which, if the process fails, could result in the first-ever class action suit being brought to a Vatican court. The Vatican has 30 days to respond with any measures they intend to take before judicial proceedings would be opened.

Employees’ complaints include being “sequestered in case of illness and forced to return unpaid hours due to COVID.”

They also charge that if they are sick, they are required to stay home all day so their illness can be verified by medical personnel on behalf of their employer.  Under Italian law, if an employee is taking a sick day, a medical representative can stop by only between the hours of 10:00 a.m. — Noon or 5:00 p.m. -7:00 p.m. to confirm the illness.

However, the Vatican has no pre-set hours for when the visit can take place, meaning employees have to stay at home the entire day, with some employees reporting that they were sanctioned because the representative came while they were at the doctor’s office.

Employees also complain about overtime, alleging they are at times required to work extra hours while receiving a lower salary for that timeframe. According to Sgrò’s letter, “the employer abuses this tool.”

There are also complaints about no distinction being made for employees who have seniority, and that workers “are the absolute asset of the manager, who uses them as he pleases. Absolute discrimination reigns, a perpetual state of chaos.”

Workers claim they have also at times been penalized for taking time off to care for sick family members.

Unemployment is also a concern, as in the Vatican, according to Sgrò, “there is no redundancy fund, there are no income support measures in the event of a crisis or phase of unemployment.”

Vatican employees who find themselves without work do not have recourse to the Italian state’s unemployment program, as they were not employed by an Italian company, meaning any Vatican worker who finds themselves without a job apparently has no means of financial relief until another job is secured.

One of the key allegations in the petition is related to a dispute over income for hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many employees were required to stay home.

Complaints have also been made over a 2021 norm issued by Pope Francis freezing the standard seniority increase from 2021-2023, which had previously happened automatically every two years.

Some employees also took issue with what they say is a lack of property safety measures at work, saying they are not granted “health, biological and physical risk compensation” despite being in direct contact with tens of thousands of people a day.

They claim that 25-30,000 people pass through the Vatican Museums on a daily basis, despite the official limit being capped at 24,000.

Safety conditions for visitors are also a concern, they said, saying there are just two emergency exits in the museums and there are many rooms without air conditioning, something they said poses a serious health risk during hot summer days when the museums are overflowing, with the custodians being responsible for administering first aid.

Rises in temperature due to the body heat also puts the conservation of works inside the museums at risk, they said, and also complained about the lack of gendarmes present, which they claim has “created problems several times, with the custodians sometimes attacked by troublesome visitors.”

Employees also allege that the protocol for the metal detectors visitors must pass through before entering the museums is not being followed.

“The pope talks about rights, we are considered simple commodities,” they said.

Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums, has not yet publicly commented on the petition or the conciliation process.

The petition comes at the same time that another dispute is unfolding outside of the Vatican walls, with residents in a building directly across from the entrance to the Vatican Museums issuing several noise complaints.

Residents of the building have complained to both Italian police and Vatican authorities about groups of pilgrims and tourists who line up early in the morning, at times as early as 5am, and use megaphones to communicate, or sing loudly while they wait to be let in.

In comments to Italian newspaper Il Messaggero, a woman identified as Ingrid who lives in the building said 17 families reside there “who haven’t slept for months. We can’t take it anymore.”

“I have lived in front of the museums for a long time, and I have never had problems like this,” she said, pinning most of the blame on South Korean groups “who line up to be the first to enter.”

The situation, she said, “has become unsustainable. They mess up every day. I often look out the window to ask them to stop, but they don’t listen to me. In fact, they often offend by making rude gestures.”

Tenants of the building, according to Il Messaggero, have so far made three complaints to Italian police and to the local municipality. While police have urged groups to keep their voices down, tenants say these requests have been unheeded.

Carmen, a 32-year-old lawyer who lives on the third floor of the building, was quoted as saying of the groups that, “In their countries they behave like civilized people, then they arrive here and forget the rule of good manners.”

Residents have asked that signs be displayed along the street in different languages reminding groups to observe a respectful silence, however, officials are passing the ball.

According to Ingrid, Italian police have said “the responsibility lies with the Vatican Museums and not them,” while the Jatta has said the Vatican has no jurisdiction to do anything, since the road outside is technically Italian territory.

Michele, a building resident who has at times used a water gun on unruly tourists, said he is especially concerned as the hot summer months approach, during which he usually has his windows open.

“If we hear them well now that we keep them closed, what will happen in the summer?” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen