Most libraries are closed. Some librarians still have to go in.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, April 18, 2024

Most libraries are closed. Some librarians still have to go in.
The closed Houston Public Library in Houston, April 10, 2020. Though public libraries in Houston are closed to readers, their staffs have been asked to join other city employees in reporting to work. Elizabeth Bick/The New York Times.

by Colin Moynihan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- October Ramos, a library employee who lives in Harris County, Texas, was relieved March 24 when the county ordered residents who did not work in essential services to stay home to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

That meant staff members employed by the Harris County Library system would be allowed to work from home.

But Ramos works for a separate, adjacent library system operated by the city of Houston (the county seat) and was soon disappointed to find out the order would not apply to the city’s employees.

The Houston Public Library told its staff that, though its branches were closed, the city remained “open for business” and they must report to work.

And so they have for several weeks, filing into the largely empty branches, where city officials say social distancing is maintained, and gloves, wipes and hand sanitizer have been made available.

Still, several Houston library employees said it did not make sense to have workers showing up at buildings closed to the reading public — especially when one employee has already had the virus.

“People may be contagious, they may not be, you just don’t know,” said Ramos, a part-time youth services employee at Houston’s central branch who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. “Then how many people could be going home from work and potentially spreading it?”

The complaint in Houston, where staff members are now allowed to work part time at home, has been heard in a number of other cities and towns across the country.

Though many libraries have sent workers home, with pay, several systems in states like Texas, Massachusetts and Colorado have required at least some staff members to keep coming to work. This has prompted criticism from some librarians, including those whose systems have made different arrangements.

“People get into librarianship because it’s a service profession and we want to help people but we’re not medical professionals or emergency personnel,” said Sara Slymon, director of the Public Library of Brookline, Massachusetts, where branches closed on March 13 and employees were sent home with pay. “To say people should come into closed buildings seems to be a violation of the very concept of this quarantine.”

The office of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement that the city “understands some employees may be anxious about going to the office during a public health crisis” but that city employees are considered essential. Some city employees have been allowed to work from home, if they can effectively do their jobs that way, the mayor’s office said.

“If an employee is not approved for telecommuting, they can speak with their supervisor or director about taking a vacation, accrued sick time, or time without pay, to remain at home,” the statement added. “Otherwise, the City cannot pay employees to stay at home if they are not working.”

Workers at shuttered libraries have reshelved books or prepared social media content, library employees in several systems said. In Eagle County, Colorado, some are involved in one of the many curbside pickup programs that library systems are continuing to operate. The governor of Colorado, Jared Polis, has ordered residents of the state to stay home unless they work in an essential industry like health care or law enforcement.

The director of the Eagle Valley Library District, Linda Tillson, said its locations were “providing educational resources” consistent with an April 6 county order designating libraries as essential. She added that library employees are given gloves, libraries are cleaned, books are disinfected and that there was no direct contact between patrons and staff.

Alison Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project, which advocates for the protection of privacy and civil liberties, said she had heard over several weeks from people in scores of library systems who said they were told to show up to work. Last week, she announced on Twitter that she had arranged a conference call to allow library employees who were still reporting to work to speak with labor organizers and a lawyer.

Callan Bignoli, director of the library at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, has created a website,, that links to a list of dozens of libraries that are said to still require employees to show up and to petitions calling for library employees to be allowed to work from home.

“I hadn’t seen many resources out there by people doing this advocacy work,” she said. “I was tying to find a way to encapsulate what I had learned and make people know that they weren’t alone.”

Officials with a union that represents library workers in Springfield, Massachusetts, wrote to the director of the library system there in mid-March, saying, “The hardships associated with COVID-19 create exposure to illness among co-workers,” and proposed that library employees be allowed to work at home.

William Mahoney, the human resources and labor relations director for Springfield, said the city had introduced new schedules since then and that most of its nine libraries only had two people at work at a time.

“The rest of the staff are assigned to work at home and are being paid while working from home,” he wrote. “We have been rotating staff so most employees only work in a library a couple of days per week.”

In Hennepin County, Minnesota, library workers were pleased at first when branches shut down and they were able to work or train at home with pay.

That changed last month when 220 library workers were told that they would no longer be paid as they had been but could apply for other county jobs. Among them were jobs at hotels providing temporary quarters for people who are homeless, including some who have been isolated or who have been diagnosed with coronavirus.

“If it was unsafe two weeks ago to be in the library buildings, how is this any safer?” said Ali Fuhrman, a library worker and president of the support staff union of Hennepin County. “Why are we putting people at risk?”

County officials said the hotels jobs were a small percentage of those the library workers could apply for, some of which did not involve contact with the public. Employees who were not reassigned could continue to draw up to 240 hours of their regular pay as a loan, portions of which would be forgiven for those who continued working for the county.

David J. Hough, the Hennepin County administrator, said the county was trying to innovate in difficult circumstances to protect workers and fulfill fiduciary obligations, adding: “We’re building the plane as we’re flying it.”

In Houston, recently, full-time and part-time employees have been splitting their work between their homes and the branches. Ramos, who is working 12 hours a week from home, has simply chosen not to return to branches until the crisis passes.

Ashley Ellis, a customer service clerk in Houston’s central branch, took off from work in mid-March upon experiencing a fever and cough and has no paid sick or vacation time left.

Ellis, who has tested negative for the coronavirus, had planned to stay on a “voluntary unpaid leave of absence” until the pandemic receded but recently decided that would be too difficult financially. The prospect of returning, Ellis said, is fraught with apprehension.

“This has to be treated with the utmost severity,” Ellis said of the virus. “It’s infecting so many people.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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