Multnomah County Library Dials Back Layoffs; Employees Call Out Systemic Racism, Top-Down Management

When Multnomah County Library (MCL), OR, announced its plan in July to reduce staff by some 14 percent, staff and members of peer institutions responded with anger and concern that library services would be compromised, even as management defended the cuts as necessary stewardship of library funds in a changing service environment. After two months of outcry on the part of staff and others, on September 2 MCL Director Vailey Oehlke issued a press release drastically rolling back the number of cuts. 

 

man in mask holding protest sign in front of Multnomah County Library sign with protesters in background, child and masked parent on sidewalk writing
Protesters outside Multnomah County Library branch
Photo by Jane Corry

When Multnomah County Library (MCL), OR, announced its plan in July to reduce staff by some 14 percent—eliminating up to 128 positions—staff and members of peer institutions responded with anger and concern that library services would be compromised, even as management defended the cuts as necessary stewardship of library funds in a changing service environment.

After two months of outcry on the part of staff and others, on September 2 MCL Director Vailey Oehlke issued a press release drastically rolling back the number of cuts. After meetings with AFSCME Local 88 staff representatives and other county stakeholders, administration arrived at a plan that would retain all but approximately 26 employees—who would be reassigned to other Multnomah County jobs—eliminating 43 vacant positions, shifting staff to 27 newly created library roles, and offering voluntary retirement and layoffs, which were taken by 26 employees. The layoffs were effective as of September 30.

However, many MCL workers are still dissatisfied, citing disproportionate impacts to staff members who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and the potential lack of representation in branches that serve communities of color. A number of library employees have spoken out through editorials in the local press and online petitions, citing a lack of transparency from library leadership, and have objected to the layoffs, even in their reduced configuration, as the result of systemic racism and top-town management policies.

 

CHANGING NEEDS

All 580 MCL staff members have received full pay and benefits since the library shuttered its 19 branches in mid-March, Oehlke explained, but even the implementation of curbside pickup and a range of online and remote services have not required the same levels of staffing. In addition to curbside pickup, newly created services include instituting book deliveries by mail, shifting in-person services such as children’s story times to a virtual environment, moving programs such as the library’s computer labs outdoors, GED and adult learner tutoring, and supporting Portland’s largest school district, which will conduct all classes virtually at least through November. Pre-COVID, roughly half of employees held positions that required in-person work.

“The vast majority of our service to the community happened in person through our locations, or through outreach in which staff were serving congregate care settings like retirement homes and day cares—all those things just stopped,” Oehlke told LJ. “We needed to retool, and we needed to adjust to a long-term reality."

While the library is funded through 2021, “Budgets are best-made plans based on projections and we simply live in a different world than we did in February when that budget was formulated. If we are to serve the public, we must look at using those dollars differently,” Oehlke wrote in an August 23 editorial in The Oregonian. “Sticking to our pre-pandemic budget’s staffing denies us the flexibility to invest in the tools the public needs.”

Physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the need to reexamine the library’s budget, said Oehlke. Given the size of most MCL branches, there are not enough buildings to safely accommodate a full roster of employees, assuming that distancing guidelines may be in place for some time to come; the smallest, she pointed out in a post on the library’s website, has a footprint of about 3,600 square feet. Quarantining library materials also creates a cost challenge, particularly given recent REALM Project findings that stacking items prolongs the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces. MCL is currently looking at a temporary storage facility to house and process materials.

 

CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS

In the first round of layoff discussions, “We took a blunt pass at what we thought the work was that couldn't be done in person, given all these constraints, and that's where we came up with the 128 number,” Oehlke told LJ. Roles to be cut or relocated included both management and union positions.

The union contract with the county, she explained, “is fundamentally based in the value of seniority. That's how it's decided who gets bumped and where they go.” Although about 115 positions had Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA) protections in place, Oehlke stated—KSA status includes African American cultural competence as well as language proficiency in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, and Somali—in spite of KSA designations, many BIPOC staff members have low seniority because the library only instituted a plan for diversity in hiring in 2017.

In her Oregonian editorial, Oehlke stated that she and her team met with AFSCME Local 88 representatives to begin examining where cuts could be made; however, according to an update sent by the union to members on July 16, "There had been no discussion between Library Management and Local 88 to discuss collaborative ideas to prevent or mitigate such a layoff. We also want to be clear that this layoff is not being driven by a budget constraint."

At the same time, Oehlke said, the library was updating its priorities and looking at ways in which it could pivot services, such as increased support for home learning and job seekers, plus ramping up work to enable access for all the communities it serves. A task force of union staff and managers sifted through hundreds of suggestions that staff had proposed since the branches closed in March, she added, looking for ideas that aligned with the updated priorities, saved positions, and would serve those in the community facing the greatest barriers.

At the time of the July announcement, MCL began offering employees a year’s worth of paid health care as a voluntary retirement incentive—with about 20 takers—and a voluntary layoff package that includes three months paid health care premiums, also given to permanently laid off employees. About 46 vacant positions were eliminated as well. “Some of those are positions we need,” Oehlke acknowledged, “but vacancies are a really good way to go because you're not impacting an individual.”

Some 26 new positions were generated through the work of the task force and employee suggestions, many of them to serve pandemic-related needs, such as a staff member to monitor and update what the library calls its playbook—all of its processes and procedures related to COVID—and someone to coordinate translations. Updates on MCL’s website are available in English, Spanish, Russian, Somali, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

By the end of August, library leadership was down to 26 filled, nonunion positions for which it didn’t have work—many of them part-time workers, clerks, and access services assistants. By coordinating with the county, MCL was able to offer all those workers jobs in other county sectors: call centers, shelters, logistics, and more, allowing them to hold onto pay, benefits, and seniority. Many of these positions are temporary, however, and only funded through the end of 2020—although Oehlke believes the county will continue to need to keep those roles staffed.

 

A “SHELL GAME”

The lack of a role for every employee was far from the only criticism employees had of MCL’s decision. “What’s responsible about initiating a layoff that will likely fall hardest on newer employees, including Black, Indigenous, and other employees of color who have helped diversify the library’s staff in recent years?” MCL employees Elleona Budd, Concha Solano, and Emily-Jane Dawson wrote in an August 16 editorial in The Oregonian.

Even after the layoffs were scaled back, workers continue to voice their frustration. “What we want to draw attention to is that the staff is calling out systemic racism, dysfunctional management, and unnecessary cuts to the system,” said Youth Services Outreach Librarian Cathy Camper. “The layoffs are part of the problem, but there is a much bigger underlying problem.”

Throughout August, library staff reportedly sent “an ongoing stream of email” to Oehlke, library leadership, and MCL District Board Chair Deborah Kafoury, according to Camper, “begging management to come to the table to talk to us, to involve staff.”

The layoffs themselves unfairly affect both staff and patrons of color, according to critics. Some 122 positions have been cut, and a number of roles vacated because of voluntary retirements and layoffs, as well as those that will remain unfilled, were meant to serve specific BIPOC communities. Some of the eliminated roles include youth librarians at small branches and bilingual Spanish-English positions. The MCL Workers United webpage terms the layoff plan a “shell game,” shifting staff with language skills and networks they have built over time from the neighborhoods where they worked—many for years—to different branches, or into limited duration or temporary positions.

Moving workers will also impact—and often increase—their commute times. “Some staff are being moved from neighborhood locations, where they could walk to work, or with good public transit, to locations that are not convenient,” added Camper. One anonymous staff member noted that they will now be biking 23 miles every day to get to and from their job.

 

NO SENIORITY, NO PROTECTION

“Oehlke has blamed BIPOC layoffs on union contract and seniority,” noted Camper, “but low seniority of BIPOC staff is the result of library management failing to address racist inequities for decades in its hiring practice, retention, and promotion.”

Kyra Hahn, previously Black cultural competency youth services librarian at MCL’s Albina Library—a KSA position—moved from Denver to Portland to take the job in 2019 but found herself facing a potential layoff within the year. Hahn, the first Black librarian hired at the branch, elected to take a voluntary layoff when it became clear that her lack of seniority would override her KSA status.

Much of Hahn’s dissatisfaction with how changes at MCL have been handled, she said, has to do with a fundamental lack of communication between management and employees. She received a layoff notice in early August, she told LJ. As of September 4 she had still not received notification of what would happen to her job, so Hahn began the process of moving back to Colorado.

Between the Albina Library losing staff of color in the layoff process and plans, announced in June, to move the branch—currently located in a historically African American neighborhood—to a new location, Hahn feels that the community will see reduced services when it needs them most.

“I am trying so hard to preserve the work of Black librarians and staff that have come before me in this library system—hard fought projects like preserving Black story time and other diverse, multilingual, multicultural content that we offer,” Hahn said. “We have been learning technology on the fly and pivoting to do these projects in a virtual way, all while getting resistance from leadership.”

Library Assistant Hue Lam-Sullivan, who has been with MCL since 2001, was also critical of the library’s communication—both internally and to stakeholders. “What you don't see is the whole picture, which is that, still, 95 positions are affected,” she said—the total number of layoffs, unfilled positions, and those who took early retirements or voluntary layoffs. “And those 95 positions are permanently removed from serving the library public.”

A number of the vacant roles to be eliminated, she said, were slated for communities in Multnomah’s East County, a traditionally underserved area, many with KSA designations. These include about 12 youth services positions, noted Camper. In addition, Lam-Sullivan told LJ, a number of people who took voluntary layoffs or retirement did so “because they wanted to save another colleague's position, or they would eventually face layoffs anyway. And the 26 people who are being reassigned to other county departments…are going to face layoffs again.”

 

A MATTER OF TRUST

The issues employees have with MCL management is representative of challenges facing the city of Portland, noted Hahn, including endemic racism, growing gentrification, and a lack of attention to various communities’ needs. “You have leadership that sees things one way, and it's not in sync with what the communities are asking for—that's part of the reason why you're seeing this clash,” she told LJ. “Library staff has been working to try and provide antiracist resources to communities and meet that demand, and yet I don't see [Oehlke] at the table talking with county leadership, talking with the mayor. The library should be positioning itself to try to help our communities heal.”

Trust is an important issue, Camper agreed. Staff members are not supposed to hold meetings without a manager present, but they have been convening over Zoom this summer, building strategies to organize and advocate for the jobs slated to be eliminated come September 30. Although the wildfires that have created unsafe conditions throughout the Pacific Northwest have delayed their gatherings in recent weeks, as a number of staff members have had to evacuate or contend with extreme conditions, they continue to make plans to speak up.

They have gathered public support as well, with more than 5,000 signatures on a petition—now taken down from the workers’ website—demanding that library and county management reconsider the layoffs, and letters from supporters such as graphic novelist Gene Yuen Lang and author Matt de la Peña. REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, has written to the MCL District Board and Library Executive Management Team, asking them to “look for creative and alternative ways to save funds.”

“A building full of books is equal to an Amazon warehouse,” said Camper. “It’s the staff” that makes the library what it is.

MCL staff members have been outspoken in the face of the planned layoffs, and Oehlke is aware of their criticisms and concerns. “there are so many stressors out there,” she told LJ—COVID-19, racial injustices, environmental challenges, and a polarizing political environment, to name a few. “Not that under normal circumstances people wouldn't be upset, but I think there are just things that are amplifying that for folks, and I get that. Staff have been frustrated, angry, upset, sad, disappointed, all of those things. This is easily the biggest change in one fell swoop that this organization has ever experienced.”

MCL can’t continue to operate with a pre-COVID model, she added. “That's not the reality. And it's not going to be the reality for probably a couple of years…. All of this is about the COVID crisis. This is not about 'the library needs to change it up.' This is about responding to a moment in time unlike anything we've ever experienced.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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Regina Cannon

More institutions should have this discussion.

Thanks for sharing.

Posted : Oct 20, 2020 07:22


Bumped MCL Worker

The particularly galling thing about Oehlke's calls for "fiscal responsibility" during the virus is that her salary as library director is $206K. That's $32K more than a US Senator, and $62K more than the Mayor of Portland. She makes more than 3 times the maximum salary of an MLIS librarian and 5 times the maximum wage of the lowest paid library workers (and it takes about 8 years to reach the highest salary step, so most of these workers make even less than that).

Also, while technical services and outreach staff are crammed into the aging and frequently leaking ISOM building, Oehlke and select members of her executive management team are in spacious rented quarters at the Lloyd Corporate Plaza Office Building at a cost to taxpayers of over $10K PER MONTH. Before the virus, there was no attempt to rent cheaper offices or move to office space already owned by the county, and they've been leasing this space for YEARS. Post-virus, it seems criminal to continue to pay for this space while all these employees are teleworking (none of THEM had their positions eliminated).

Posted : Oct 19, 2020 07:40


Still Another MCL Worker

The crucial fact of the layoffs is that the library is well-funded. The public has paid taxes and been promised services. Staff have submitted dozens of proposals and begged for an opportunity to provide those services, but have been told no by management without any explanation.

In addition, Oehlke and her team say that they are leading with race, but can’t say what that means, are not taking action in that direction, and have rejected ideas from staff related to equity.

This is not a situation in which a small number of staff are angry with library management. Many staff are angry and believe current library leadership cannot and should not be in control of our beloved library.

Posted : Oct 19, 2020 02:05


Edna Keller

Here's an idea. When you are talking about the work to be done, include the folk who actually do the work. Mission values are good; boots on the ground are better. Also, it's our money/taxes; listen to us before you spend it.

Posted : Oct 14, 2020 12:53


Yet Another MCL Worker

It's a complete fallacy that there isn't work to do. Materials are backed up at most locations. Some are putting stacks and stacks of crates out in the branch to find space and are still falling further behind. Reference questions via email are backed up too. The Executive Management Team refused to engage with represented staff despite numerous requests for them to do so. They weren't interested in innovative solutions to meet the needs of providing even minimal services. They clearly had their own agenda and were dedicated to that course of action even though the library is fully funded until June 30th, 2021. The top down structure is toxic and it's the public who suffers.

Posted : Oct 12, 2020 06:23


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