After St. Louis County Library Lays Off 122 Workers, Employees Allege Retaliation for Activism

On August 11, St. Louis County Library (SLCL), MO, announced the layoffs of 122 part-time workers. All 600 employees, both full- and part-time, had been paid during nearly three months while library buildings were closed. But a number of staff, along with other supporters, feel that the layoffs will impact services once the library reopens. Some workers have also alleged that the layoffs were retaliatory.

exterior of long library building with parking lot in front
St. Louis County Library headquarters
Photo by Kara Hayes Smith

On August 11, St. Louis County Library (SLCL), MO, announced the layoffs of 122 part-time workers. The decision was made for the library to be “good stewards of tax dollars,” library President Kristen Sorth told the St. Louis American; all 600 employees, both full- and part-time, had been paid during nearly three months while library buildings were closed.

But a number of employees, along with other supporters, feel that the layoffs will impact services once the library reopens, leaving several of its 20 branches without librarians who represent their communities—38 percent of the workers let go were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color). Several branches lost a high proportion of staff of color; five of nine employees let go at one North St. Louis County branch were Black, and another two locations lost all of their Black clerk staff.

Although the number of BIPOC workers let go roughly reflected the library’s overall workforce proportions—before the layoffs, 30 percent of the SLCL workforce were people of color— “At some branches they lost 100 percent of their staff of color,” one of the librarians LJ spoke to said. (All employees who spoke to LJ did so on condition of anonymity.)

Another noted, “if you’re a person of color and you’re getting laid off, you’re going to be disproportionately affected by that layoff, especially right now. And that wasn’t counting queer people or single moms.”

Some workers have also alleged that the layoffs were retaliatory. After staff concerns about safety during reopening, police disinvestment, and Black Lives Matter were not addressed after being presented internally, a group, “Libraries for All STL,” organized and presented library administration with several demands in the month prior to the layoffs: that reopened branches close and return to curbside service to protect workers, that SLCL remove police from libraries—currently the budget devotes $500,000 to police presence at six branches—and that the library’s Board of Trustees make an official statement supporting Black Lives Matter. A public petition garnered more than 1,200 signatures.

Libraries for All STL members noted that because the terminations were based on seniority—nearly every part-time worker hired after 2017 was let go—younger and Black librarians were disproportionately affected. SLCL incorporated a focus on diversity in hiring in its strategic plan in 2018—“So all of that work that they had been doing that was positive over the last few years is gone,” one librarian told LJ. “It’s a tragedy.”

 

STAFF CONCERNS AT THE FOREFRONT

Like other systems in the region, SLCL opened for browsing and computer use in mid-June, with restrictions such as mandatory masks, distancing, and building capacity limits. But library workers were only informed of the reopening the week before, said a youth services librarian; they had to find childcare on short notice and decide quickly whether they felt comfortable returning to the building.

Once they returned, staff were faced with a public unwilling to wear masks and resistant to six-foot distancing, as well as insufficient plexiglass to protect work areas. “Things were happening a little too fast for what the safety precautions could provide,” she recalled. “It was really stressful.”

Around the same time, a small group of employees submitted an internal petition to library management using library data to make a case for police disinvestment. The statistics—all of which were available over the library intranet—demonstrated that bannings for behavioral infractions happened disproportionately more often at libraries in predominantly Black neighborhoods, as did the involvement of law enforcement. “We already have so much general evidence nationally of the problem with police, but there was very specific system-level evidence of why this clearly needed to be addressed,” said the librarian.

The tone of the document, she added, was respectful. However, the employees responsible were asked by administration to take the document off of the library system, and several managers who signed were verbally reprimanded, a librarian said. “Those of us who signed it felt like we were under a spotlight,” she reported.

Following the posting and removal of the internal petition, SLCL administration organized a series of five or six virtual town hall meetings at the end of June to discuss issues that staff were concerned about, particularly police disinvestment. A third-party consultant, Practical Diversity Solutions, was hired to run them.

According to one longtime part-time employee who had not been laid off, Sorth explicitly assured attendees that it was safe for them to speak their minds. “Several of us felt comfortable speaking out, and I felt personally that it was a good opportunity to get heard, since I’d never had the opportunity to speak to the director before,” the employee said. She explained to Sorth that a number of library workers had also participated in protests where police officers were “unnecessarily forceful with us, and then we come to work and we have to work alongside these same cops, and that makes us uncomfortable.”

“One of my fears is that one of the police in my neighborhood who terrify me and my husband and the teens in my neighborhood by their actions is going to walk into the library and be the security officer on duty,” added another librarian. “More of us would speak up about that if we weren’t intimidated.”

At the town halls, Sorth broached the idea of hiring social workers for some branches, and several of the employees LJ spoke with felt that the understanding was that the library had ample funding for personnel going forward—according to the library’s 2020 budget proposal, prepared in fall 2019, revenue received from the state of Missouri was projected to increase in 2020, with the SLCL budget projected to increase by approximately 32 percent, or just over $100,000. The message, one employee said, was, “Over and over again: You won’t lose your job. Nobody’s going to lose their job. We just want to hear how you feel.”

But solid funding isn’t guaranteed in the future, Sorth noted. Financial contractions stemming from the pandemic will affect people’s abilities to pay taxes next year, she told LJ. “Many libraries are thinking that 2021 and even 2022 are going to be the years that are really challenging.”

As COVID cases began to mount again in July, several branches closed, and Sorth sent an email to staff that the library was working to keep employees safe. But tensions among workers were mounting, and employees began circulating emails expressing their dissatisfaction.

“For the first time I’d ever seen, we saw people respond,” the part-time employee told LJ. “Usually those emails go out with no response—nobody ever says anything back. But at this point we felt like we were obligated to stand up and say, ‘This is not the best you could do to protect us.’ We wanted a return to curbside [only], and we were pushing the issue forward.” She noted that, because she is a part-time employee, she is not provided with health care benefits through the library, and she has several pre-existing conditions that make her especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

According to several employees, the library’s response was to dismantle the listservs where the conversation was taking place. Staff then formed Libraries for All STL with the support of a few outside advocates, including local justice organizations Action St. Louis, West County Community Action Network, and Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression. The group set up a website and Facebook account, calling for public comments addressed to the SLCL board on divestment and staff safety issues.

 

A SECOND SHUTDOWN

After another virus spike in midsummer, SLCL returned to curbside-only service on July 29. Open hours were significantly cut—down to 560 a week from 1,300 pre-pandemic, with abbreviated Saturday and evening hours. (As of November, the library further cut curbside hours, and eliminated Saturday service altogether.)

“At that point we had more people than we needed to do the work,” Sorth told LJ. Circulation was down about 50 percent, with only 21 percent of that coming through curbside. “So we felt that a reduction in force was appropriate at that time, given the fact that we did not see us resuming regular library services or letting people in the building for the rest of 2020.” Most of the library’s part-time employees worked two nights a week and Saturdays, she explained.

However, staff stated that the library was busier than ever, especially as many staff members were out sick and remaining workers were helping distribute food, diapers, sanitary items, and technology in the community (With the addition of $4 million in federal CARES Act funding, SLCL is part of an equity initiative to give out 6,000 Chromebooks and 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots); providing online programming; or helping with curbside pickup. Workers are delivering food for Operation Food Search, and the library hosts diaper drives and connects people to unemployment services.

On August 11, 122 part-time staff members were called before showing up at their shifts and informed that they would be laid off, or were told as they arrived at work. The announcement, made two weeks after the library returned to curbside-only service, came as a surprise to everyone, several of the employees LJ spoke with said, and they felt that, after being assured that jobs were safe, the layoffs were a response to their mobilizing and publicly confronting library administration.

“My bosses cried,” said a librarian. “We all cried. We lost our entire Saturday crew. We lost evenings. It was shocking.” Employees reported that their managers said they would have taken a reduction in pay in order to keep the workers if that option had been presented.

“I think that one of the most ethical things you could do in a situation like what we’re currently going through as a nation is to keep people working,” said one employee. Part-time staff could have been kept on while taking professional development courses, she added—there is a need for Spanish speakers in many branches, and de-escalation or conflict resolution training would help staff work toward the goal of removing police officers. “There are a lot of things that [administration] could have done with this time rather than say that we weren’t worth our salaries,” she told LJ. “We’re essential. We put our lives on the line.”

Laid off employees were offered a four-week severance package that offered them positions in contact tracing for the St. Louis County Health Department at $15 an hour—more than the $11 to $13 an hour they were earning at the library. However, the contact tracing jobs are only guaranteed through the end of the year.

The layoffs were not retaliatory, stated Sorth, but rather a response to July’s sudden return to curbside service. “The decision was made based on the hours that we were still open and when we needed people to work,” she explained to LJ. “This has absolutely nothing to do with the other effort that was underway, and in fact lots of the people who were involved in that discussion are still working here. That internal discussion led to town hall meetings, employee surveys, and a ton of discussion about how to reimagine public safety at the library.”

The library hasn’t had to lay off employees in her more than 20 years at SLCL, she added. “It’s the hardest thing. I think everybody feels that way right now—incredibly hard decisions.”

 

PUSHING FOR ACTION

Libraries for All STL is building a coalition with other library workers, said one of LJ’s sources, “But we’re really targeting our administration and board members with specific demands that we have that come out of this campaign, and this frustration around their lack of transparency, and their ability to have a rational conversation around these issues.”

On October 27, Libraries for All STL issued a press release inviting Sorth, SLCL Deputy Director Eric Button, and Board President Lynn Beckwith to a meeting to discuss workers’ demands, but had not received a response as of press time.

At the November board meeting, the library agreed to eliminate St. Louis County police officers from its budget, instead hiring three full-time and three part-time internal security employees to staff one branch in South County and four in North County, one of St. Louis’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse areas. The organization continues to press for reinstatement of the laid off workers, as well as providing Black-led participatory budgeting for the library going forward.

Sorth is looking at how other libraries have handled on-site social workers, and hopes to partner with an agency on an ongoing basis, rather than just providing office hours—”We’ve tried that in the past and that doesn’t seem to work,” said Sorth. “This would be a true case management partnership with an agency where a social worker would follow a case for a patron, or for a group of family members that are patrons, and assist them with their needs.” She has had conversations with county government on the subject, she added, as well as funders who would be interested in supporting such a partnership.

SLCL has set aside some money for cost of living increases in 2021, she added, and plans to move starting pay up to the $15 an hour, the new minimum wage in St. Louis County proposed to be enacted by 2022. She hopes the library can open some of the part-time positions back up eventually, Sorth said, although those roles might be different from former positions; there has been no discussion of reinstating workers.

Due to new St. Louis County COVID restrictions, the library is currently limited to a maximum of 10 people in its buildings. Full- and part-time employees who cannot work from home continue to be paid for their scheduled shifts. The library does not have plans to open its buildings for the remainder of 2020.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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