Pandemic-Caused Austerity Drives Widespread Furloughs, Layoffs of Library Workers

As libraries approach their third month of closure, many institutions that had continued to pay employees—whether or not they were able to engage in active work—are now turning to layoffs or furloughs, often citing concerns about budget cuts.

library bookshelves with sign on chain across aisle sayingWhen public libraries across the county began closing their facilities in reaction to COVID-19, beginning in mid-March, no one could predict how long those shutdowns would last. Reactions on the part of officials, library boards, and directors ranged from assigning remote roles to those who could fill them while keeping as many employees on the payroll as possible, to immediate staff-wide layoffs. As libraries approach their third month of closure, many institutions that had continued to pay employees—whether or not they were able to engage in active work—are now turning to layoffs or furloughs, often citing concerns about budget cuts.

For a more granular list, see the crowdsourced Tracking Library Layoffs document; while probably not comprehensive, at press time it recorded layoffs and furloughs at 214 U.S. libraries, the vast majority of them public, and another 31 in Canada. While many do not report numbers on how many library workers lost their jobs, adding up only those that did yields about 4,250 in the United States and 1,950 in Canada—clearly a significant undercount even of those that are listed, given the large number of reports that do not disclose amounts, give percentages but not numbers, or simply say “all.” These counts don’t include those who took pay cuts, had furloughs that have already ended, or who will be furloughed only a certain number of days.

Part-time, paraprofessional, contract, and student employees have been hit hardest by layoffs across the board, as have front-line workers who can’t transition to remote work—those who shelve and sort books, provide face-to-face customer service, drive library vehicles, or clean the buildings. But every library has its own unique factors to consider, and the decisions of directors, boards, and elected officials can mean the difference between employees who feel set adrift or treated poorly and those who sympathize with their employers’ situation and hold out hope to return.

 

WHOSE DECISION?

A library that is part of its city or county government may take the lead from the mayor, city council, or county commissioners. This may involve furloughs, layoffs, or reductions in hours for all city employees except, in most cases, police and fire departments. Cities as varied as Houston; Milwaukee; and Rochester, NY; have announced reductions in their city workforce, including library workers.

Although layoffs and furloughs are often mentioned together, they have different implications. A furlough is a leave of absence, during which a worker no longer receives a paycheck but is still considered to have employee status, and is usually guaranteed a return to their former position once the library reopens—complicated, of course, by the fact that most libraries don’t yet have a firm date set. Furloughed employees can keep their health benefits, with varying contributions on the library’s end. Time accrued toward pensions and PTO, however, is put on hold during the furlough period.

Layoffs, on the other hand, are generally considered to be a termination of employment. Employers may continue to offer benefits for a period of time, and may even hold out hope that the employee may be rehired, but neither of these are a given.

There is no pattern to which libraries are furloughing employees, laying them off, or continuing to pay them, often for reduced hours—many have done a combination of these, depending on workers’ roles and employment status. Smaller and single branch libraries, where a majority of the workers are paraprofessionals or part-timers, were some of the first to begin wide-scale layoffs. Larger systems are more inclined toward furloughs, often with an eye to the potential costs of having to rehire a large number of employees.

And some have rethought that decision. In early April the city of San Diego, hit hard by the loss of its tourism revenue, decided to furlough some 800 workers—636 of them at San Diego Public Library (SDPL) and city recreation centers—to close the gap. All but 50 SDPL staff had been deemed nonessential by the city, said Director Misty Jones. But after the union representing those workers filed a grievance, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer rescinded the order on April 9.

Instead, the city agreed to find other tasks for them at their full salaries. These currently include working at the city’s Development Services Department, which manages city records, codes, and permits, or helping at a new shelter at the San Diego Convention Center, where approximately 1,100 residents experiencing homelessness have been housed to provide social distancing and access to service providers. Some 50 SDPL staff, including Jones, chose to work at the shelter, and roughly 120 are using their leave time—but most, she said, have accepted one of the city’s assignments “because it’s a paycheck.”

For those that are part of an independent district, these decisions often begin and end with the director and board, and whether—or when—to furlough or lay off employees is one of the most difficult decisions library directors currently face. “There is no one-size-fits-all for what everyone should do,” said Patrick Losinski, CEO of Ohio’s Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML). The 23-branch system announced furloughs for 609 full- and part-time employees effective April 19, and reduced staff hours for 237 non-furloughed employees as of April 28. “What we did, I believe, was the best option for us.”

Essentially, Losinski told LJ, “You're looking at trying to make this assessment on your own.” CML trustees looked to other organizations in the area, he explained, weighing how quickly other nonprofits were beginning to institute furloughs against the services the library needed to continue providing its customers.

CML had already instituted a hiring freeze and cut more than $7.8 million from its operating budget, including reducing materials budgets, IT purchases, and consulting contracts, as well as hitting the pause button on two major construction projects. After paying all employees in full for five weeks since closing on March 14, the CML board had to re-assess what to do next—and chose furloughs. Staff who remain on payroll were given pay cuts based on salary, with the lowest-paid receiving 2.5 percent cuts, higher-paid employees 7.5 percent, senior staff and leaders 10 percent, and Losinski, as CEO, a 20 percent cut.

Both furloughed and laid off workers are eligible for unemployment benefits. With the added $600 weekly benefit available through the federal stimulus package through the end of July, some may even be making more than when they were working, although delays in processing applications for those benefits could keep them waiting for weeks or even months. CML employees will continue to receive medical and dental benefits, said Losinski, and during their furlough period CML will also pay the employee share through July, “as a way to try to give our people the softest landing possible.”

 

EYEING THE BOTTOM LINE

Even with strong overall support for its libraries, Ohio is anticipating severe cutbacks. The state has two main sources of library funding: state and local property tax revenue. With record high unemployment, many residents may not be able to make their tax payments—and as property values drop, those payments will decline as well. Tax collections across the state are predicted to shrink by 30 to 35 percent, and this concern is echoed in libraries across the country.

“The bottom line was, we know revenue reductions are coming, and all the projections we're seeing, they're going to be higher than anything I've experienced in 35 years of working in libraries,” said Losinski.

Ohio’s Akron–Summit County Public Library (ASCPL) was one of the first large systems to announce furloughs, on April 9, for 339 of its 391 employees. Library leadership and the board of trustees began researching the relative advantages of furloughs, layoffs, and force reductions in March, and elected to furlough about 85 percent of the library’s staff.

Furloughed ASCPL employees will be able to keep their health benefits and access the employee assistance program, and won’t lose accrued leave. In addition, said director Pam Hickson-Stevenson, employees were given the option to cash out a week of their vacation leave if they wanted to have some cash on hand immediately—although this delayed their employment benefits by a week, she noted.

Another Ohio system, the traditionally well-funded Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), is looking at a projected $5 million budget shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and announced on April 22 plans to lay off and furlough more than 300 staff members, with the remaining staff—both union and management—working a significantly reduced schedule. Under SharedWork Ohio, a layoff avoidance program, those staff can continue to work reduced hours and receive unemployment benefits based on state eligibility requirements.

 

KEEPING THE LINES OPEN

The first order of business after the furlough option was decided, said Losinski, was to keep lines of communications open. “We spent a lot of time explaining the why of our decision, the benefits that would be available, how we hope to communicate.” CML did two Zoom town halls for more than 700 employees to outline the rationale for its decision, and to outline how it would continue to support them.

“There's a fear factor here for everyone,” Losinski acknowledged. “How long will the furlough last, what happens when the additional federal benefits run out? Those are all real issues.”

Good communication with the library’s Human Resources (HR) department was important as well, said Hickson-Stevenson. Less than 24 hours after the board had endorsed Akron’s furlough plan, she said, every staff member had received a furlough letter or email with detailed instructions on what to do next, how to file for unemployment, the benefits that would remain available to them, and which ones wouldn’t (for example, time on furlough doesn’t count as credit toward the state retirement system).

Staff were, understandably, unhappy about the furloughs, Hickson-Stevenson acknowledged, but felt that they appreciated how the process was handled, with ASCPL providing information to all on the library’s funding and what issues were at stake. One recurring question she tried to address was on the library’s budget for salaries, which had been approved through the end of the fiscal year. “Just because personnel expenses were budgeted for a year doesn't mean that the revenue is going to be there to pay for it,” she explained. “A budget is a plan, it's an aspiration. But if your revenue drops, you can't do what your budget called for you to do. We tried to explain that, and generally speaking—I hope I'm right—I think our staff understood.”

Certainly some workers recognize those efforts on the part of library leaders. “My director has really bent over backwards for all of us on staff,” one employee at a northeastern library, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told LJ. When his library closed its doors on March 13, only full-time workers were given remote work to do; as circulation staff, he didn’t have the same option. For six weeks, even part-time employees continued to receive paychecks, were expected to show up for department Zoom meetings, and were invited to take part in professional development webinars and trainings offered by the library’s consortium.

On May 1, the director informed them in a staff-wide email that the town had decided to furlough all municipal part-time employees, including library staff. She included information about state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program, with guidelines for applying. He anticipates bringing home close to the equivalent of his former paycheck, and will be stepping back into his role when the library reopens.

His faith in his director is not unique; she is, he said, “fiercely loyal to her staff, and she inspires tremendous loyalty from us.” She has been outspoken about protecting library workers, and come out publicly against curbside pickup. She keeps in touch with a staff-wide email daily, letting them know what’s happening. “She's a constant presence,” he said. “I think a lot of us really appreciate that.”

 

STRESS AND ANXIETY

Other libraries have not been so transparent. A librarian in western Canada, who did not wish to be named, told LJ that when her system closed on March 15, nearly the entire staff were informed by email that they would be laid off at the end of the following business day. Exempt from this were two e-resources librarians, a tech systems manager, and management.

Although and the library had closed meeting rooms to the public and had begun sanitizing public computers and checkout counters, and workers knew from the news that there would be further changes, “It was a huge surprise,” she said. “We had sort of assumed that if the library were to close, we would be looking at developing alternate services and enhancing digital services.”

While she expects that most staff will be recalled to their previous positions when the library reopens, she is unhappy with how the process was handled. Communication with employees has mainly been through the unions, although staff has not been shut out from their email accounts—in fact, she said, “They’re still asking us to check our work email on a regular basis” and catch up on professional development. “Other than that, the only types of communications we've been getting from them are things like, ‘Here's a sourdough recipe.’ ‘Here's a charming story from one of our communities.’ We haven't gotten any information about how to correctly fill out our applications for unemployment insurance.”

The lack of communication, she added, has caused her colleagues a lot of stress and anxiety. “It seems like an unkind way to treat your employees, particularly given the circumstances we're all facing right now.”

Another full-time employee in a small U.S. eastern seaboard town’s stand-alone library, who also wished to protect her identity, was similarly furloughed on short notice. The library board decided to close the building on March 15, and it shut its doors the next day, before the 18 employees—six full-time, 12 part-time—could get set up with the equipment to work from home. They were paid through April 1, when the board decided to furlough all part-time workers except for one IT staffer and reduce all full-time hours, curtailing the online programming the library had been offering.

The board’s decision was problematic, she said. “Some of them really didn't understand what a library does or how it operates in the best of times, so their expectations were unrealistic in the worst of times,” she said. “It was frustrating to hear that they didn't really see any value in the library remaining open in a virtual sense. Although I think that our patrons and the community would disagree, unfortunately it wasn't really up to them.”

She was, however, impressed with how her director handled the process. “She’s done a great job,” LJ’s source said. “She did her best with what she was given, and really went beyond my expectations, coming up with a plan for keeping everyone working and busy for as long as she could. Unfortunately, the board just wasn't on board with her plan.”

 

EMOTIONAL COSTS

The decision to furlough workers is never easy, said Losinski. “There's the cost that you can calculate on a spreadsheet for salaries, but some of the other costs—and they're real costs—are the emotional costs.”

Navigating the unemployment insurance system—in many states antiquated and bureaucratic even before the unprecedented caseload—will be stressful even in light of the additional $600 federal stimulus supplements, as well as anxiety about whether rehires will happen before that supplement runs out. And given future budget constraints, there may be further personnel cuts ahead for many libraries.

While she can’t tell what reopening will look like, Jones does not anticipate being able to bring all SDPL employees, particularly hourly workers, back to their former roles. “We're trying to provide some type of work opportunity for everybody, knowing that we're facing pretty severe budget cuts,” she told LJ. “We're anticipating being closed on Sundays and Mondays. So that means we'll lose a lot of that hourly staff.”

“The decision to furlough was not entered into lightly,” Hickson-Stevenson told LJ. “The only thing that has helped me is knowing the financial situation with benefits and health insurance coverage, and the things that we were able to do to make sure that we could continue serving our staff in the best way that we could, while also keeping an eye to the sustainability of the library. Because of course if the library can't be sustained, then it's not there for anybody.”

Most libraries have no firm reopening date in sight, but are looking to state health directors and local officials for direction—and even these guidelines are constantly changing. “We're evaluating in the afternoon what we heard in the morning,” said Losinski. "The point is, we've got to conserve cash and anticipate what's coming forward. How do we do that so we are in the best position to come back as strong as possible? None of us is thinking this is 120 days. We're thinking this is five years.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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