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Librarians sound alarms about pandemic protocols

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Despite the pandemic raging across the city, state, and country, the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system remains open. Other city services have made the jump largely online, such as the Cook County court system. The city has designated libraries as essential services, but some library staff say the current COVID-19 measures are not enough to protect the patrons and employees, and those measures also hinder the very services the staff are expected to perform.  

When asked about the open libraries, Patrick Molloy, director of government and public affairs at CPL, wrote in an e-mail, “Libraries play an important role as a safety net in communities and provide trusted and reliable information, particularly in times of crisis. Maintaining a level of in-branch services, with the appropriate safety measures in place, ensure that we are able [to] provide for those who have no other place to go for basic access to computers, the internet or other resources.” 

Current COVID-19 guidelines include a one-hour maximum computer time and staff interactions of ten minutes or less with patrons. “We have a lot of patrons at my branch that don’t have computer skills,” says one employee who asked to remain anonymous. The pandemic has further exposed the lack of computer and online skills.

With these restrictions, the employee points out, “It makes it difficult to help patrons to accomplish important things like SNAP and unemployment.” On December 1, CPL rolled out new screensharing capabilities to help patrons who might need extra assistance, but the employee says that setup can easily take more than ten minutes. “It feels like a Band-Aid for a gaping wound,” the employee says.

When asked about concerns over helping patrons with computers, Molloy explains that staff do what they can to help patrons, but safety has to be the most important concern.

Libraries also had guidelines that if there was a line, patrons would be asked to spend no more than an hour in the building. Those guidelines have been relaxed since libraries never met capacity. During the winter, libraries can serve as temporary warming stations (as long as capacity has not been met).

Molloy explains that the CPL’s safety procedures are in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Chicago and Illinois Departments of Public Health. He writes, “Changes are made based on use patterns, feedback and public health guidance in this evolving environment that we’re all navigating together.” The screensharing software was the result of staff feedback, Molloy says.

But employees interviewed are concerned about the libraries being used as a social service (a role that predates the current crisis), calling it a “stopgap” that is magnified by the pandemic. One CPL employee says the city needs to deal with endemic homelessness in a significant way instead of foisting it onto the library staff. 

When asked about current measures, Katie Suleta, an epidemiologist with a background in infectious disease, advises: “Being inside in close proximity [with] another person, even [in a] mask, for a prolonged period of time is a high-risk activity. Reducing capacity is good because fewer people are inside at any one time, but that still means that people are coming in and out so there’s a higher risk to librarians.”

“Ten minutes is OK but the less time the better. Also, even after a librarian is finished assisting someone, that doesn’t mean that they are out of contact distance with a person,” Suleta says.

Employees also mention challenges with mask compliance, even after months of mandatory mask wearing. Branches have been given cleaning supplies, but many staff say they have paid out of pocket to keep their branches stocked. They were also given plexiglass to put a wall between staff and patrons, but the measure does not help much with 360-degree desks. 

Employees would like to see more transparency. Several CPL employees mention that only recently the CPL website informed people when branches were shut down due to COVID-19. “There’s a sense that we are safer than we are,” another employee explains. Employees estimate over 20 branches since reopening in the spring have been temporarily closed due to COVID. Molloy says that branch closures were the result of COVID-positive staff members self-reporting. 

A recent letter to the union from Mary Ellen Messner, acting commissioner of CPL, stated, “There have been only two COVID cases, determined through contract tracing and case interviews, to be linked to in-library transmission, and there have been no instances of spread in any library.” When branches are informed about a staff member testing positive, they close for a half a day to a few days for cleaning, says Molloy. The CPL reports that “Of our 1,063 employees, 37 people have self-reported positive cases,” but that number likely excludes custodial staff and security guards.

But since the library serves already high-risk populations, such as the elderly and the homeless, concerns remain. Anders Lindall, spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31, which represents the library workers, says, “Employees worry for their own safety on the job and the safety of patrons,” especially since positivity rates are rising.

As with the digital divide, the virus has exacerbated staffing issues within the library system. Chronic understaffing has been a problem long before March; a 2018 Report of the Office of Inspector General found issues with the CPL staffing, citing “inefficient use of CPL’s resources,” such as staff “performing tasks that fell outside their job descriptions and for which they were overqualified.”

Many CPL employees are feeling burnt out and unheard. Some fear retaliation for bringing up concerns, which is why all the employees interviewed in this article have been anonymous. 

“I know that nobody has been officially reprimanded for voicing concerns over COVID safety,” Molloy said when asked about these fears, “We have continuously been telling staff that, if they feel like their branches need to be reassessed for safety purposes, to let us know. We also created an email address . . . specifically for staff to send questions and/or feedback about COVID safety.”

“Management also took an extremely long time to respond to our union’s requests to meet . . . and discuss our working conditions,” one staff member says.

Some CPL employees call out Mayor Lori Lightfoot for the current situation. They’ve been trying to get aldermen involved but have not attracted much interest. They ask that the public consider reaching out to their aldermen and/or the mayor’s office to ask to either close libraries temporarily or move to curbside and virtual service only. In early December, a petition from “CPL Staff and Patrons” circulated online with similar demands.

“It’s not that we want to be staying at home eating bonbons. We want to do the job safely. It’s not safe. There are other library systems that have figured it out,” one staff member says. New York City, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, among others, have closed their buildings to the public and instead are offering curbside pick-up and digital services. 

In the letter to the union, Messner, acting commissioner of CPL, wrote about curbside pick-up that it  “would not be equitable across the system and, ultimately, would allow for more contact with patrons. We can certainly revisit this idea to determine its feasibility.”

But CPL staff do not want to see anyone go without pay. “There’s an unwillingness to think creatively about employees’ work,” one staff member says. They also want part-time employees to get health insurance.

Says one employee, “We want to do our job; there are too many obstacles.”  v

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 20 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Rebellious Magazine for Women, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.

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