Saskatoon Public Library Readies for Staff Restructuring

As Canada’s Saskatoon Public Library, Saskatchewan, nears the launch of its new organization-wide restructuring, employees are both excited and apprehensive about their new roles, library leadership is optimistic about the shift to a community-led model, and negotiations with the library workers’ union are still in progress.

Saskatoon Public Library, Dr. Freda Ahenakew Branch
Photo credit: Ksibbald via Wikimedia Commons

As Canada’s Saskatoon Public Library (SPL), Saskatchewan, nears the launch of its new organization-wide restructuring, employees are both excited and apprehensive about their new roles, library leadership is optimistic about the shift to a community-led model, and negotiations with the library workers’ union are still in progress. On July 16, nearly 40 percent of the nine-branch system’s approximately 300 employees will change their jobs as a result of the restructuring. As a result of a multi-part interview process, in which each employee applied for new positions, some will move from programming or front desk work to support or supervisory positions, and some will switch from part-time to full-time (or vice versa). According to library officials, 61 percent of those in new roles received a wage increase, ten percent will remain at their current pay levels, and 29 percent will receive pay cuts. No employee was terminated as part of the restructuring. Four employees did not apply for a position in the new structure or did not accept the position they were offered. The library’s reorganization plan, with the goal of transitioning SPL to a new “community-led” service model, was initially announced in late 2016. It has met with reactions ranging from enthusiasm on the part of library workers who see it as an opportunity to get a leg up within the system—as well as to better serve patrons—to protests and petitions. It has, however, reportedly deepened the rift between library management and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2669, the union representing library workers.

TOWARD A COMMUNITY-LED MODEL

In 2008, several public library systems across Canada, including Vancouver, Toronto, Regina, and Halifax, together published the Community-Led Libraries Toolkit. The concept addresses the need for libraries to take their cues from the community rather than simply presenting programs and services they believes constituents want or need. This can include the elimination of systemic barriers such as fines and fees, development of programming specific to community needs, and a focus on service sustainability. “The Project also [understands] the gulf that exists between outreach—libraries’ usual approach to communities—and community development, an important distinction,” the toolkit’s introduction states. SPL director and CEO Carol Cooley had been interested in moving the library to a community-led model since she stepped into the role in 2015. She had helped begin a similar transition as director of the Fort McMurray Public Library, in Alberta, and Town of the Blue Mountains Public Library, Ontario, and wanted the same for SPL—which she felt was slightly conservative and “behind the times” when it came to serving its community. "Employees were taking steps towards some of the elements of community-led, but they had significant barriers in their way to really be successful,” Cooley told LJ. “Most of our librarians spent a great deal of their time working on service desks as opposed to being able to get out in the community and connect, and find out what it is that the community needed from their branch." The groundwork for the transition was laid in summer 2015, when Cooley visited each branch and spoke to employee groups about the barriers they faced in their work. From those discussions came a new strategic plan, which was released in fall 2016. At that time, leadership announced that it would be undertaking a restructure of employee positions to be consistent with the community-led model—among other changes, consolidating “siloed” roles, eliminating many desk positions in favor of staff with multiple competences helping customers out on the floor, and creating departments in each branch to eliminate the hub-and-spoke model, which required department heads at the Central Library to support staff in the other branches. In the old, more compartmentalized model, said Cote, "We were directing people to go find another desk, as opposed to serving whatever their needs were as they walked in the door." The library engaged Cheryl Stenström, a lecturer at San José University’s iSchool and the former chief librarian/CEO of South Shore Public Libraries in Nova Scotia, as a consultant to help envision what the new structure would look like. Stenström embarked on a service study, looking at similar sized libraries across Canada and how they compared to SPL’s services, organizational structure, and staffing model. She conducted half-hour interviews with public services staff about the services they provided, the challenges they faced, and what they felt would need to change in order to provide better service, and circulated a survey among all employees. From those responses Stenström generated a report, which Cooley brought to the library board and leadership team.

NEW COMPETENCIES, NEW ROLES

In spring 2017, in response to provincial government funding cuts, SPL announced the layoffs of 22 employees as part of the 2018 budget preparation process. Budget shortfalls announced in March 2017 had threatened public library funding throughout Saskatchewan, but thanks to a grassroots petition campaign across the province, funding was restored just over a month later. But because funding was still uncertain, leadership decided that, rather than design the transition in full and then announce the specifics, it would develop the restructuring plan in stages as staff members provided feedback, comments, and concerns; SPL also hoped to work with the union to make the process easier for employees. Between June and December 2017, SPL held 47 town hall meetings with employee work groups. Cooley, Cote, and director of human resources Audrey Sanders met with each work unit type at least three times to explain the process and get feedback—some of which resulted in changes to the model, such as the addition of programming associate positions at the request of non-librarian employees who wished to have programming roles in the new structure. After conducting interview prep sessions to help ready employees for the process, in December 2017 the library began the first phase of interviews for specialized and supervisory positions. A second round followed in February and March for library service associates—non-degreed librarians who will be working the floor and assisting customers. A third, for the remaining roles, will be conducted before mid-July. As stipulated by the library’s collective agreement, once employees completed and passed their interviews they were offered positions by seniority. The new roles reflect cross-competencies both within and outside the library buildings, including community partnership librarians, welcoming initiatives librarians, and neighborhood librarians, but will also allow employees to focus on their areas of expertise, such as collection development, patron services, or support. In the new model, said Cote, “There's the expertise to be able to both help with the traditional library services of readers advisory and reference and…more cross-training so that when an adult comes in with a child, the person helping them understands working with adults and working with children, or can easily walk you to the next place where there's more expertise in that area." Vertical teams will provide leadership opportunities for those who are interested moving into supervisory roles. In addition, said Cooley, the newly-created library service associate roles provide non-librarians, or those without experience, with an entry point into the system, so they can move up from there. And more people on the front lines will allow for more community interaction and feedback. “We wanted to build that capacity for public consultation,” said Cote. “[Staff] working with the public—everybody from people who are shelving books, who often get a lot of the directional questions, to the people who are checking out books who get to find out about what [patrons] are asking for” will be able to provide SPL with information it needs on what its customers want. One important component involved standardizing job descriptions—some of which hadn’t been revised in 25 years, and which often differed widely from one branch to another. Wages have been adjusted as well, and equalized according to union outlines, said Cooley. But because the roles are new, each job was assigned a pay band by the joint job evaluation committee, and some employees had to accept wage reductions. To help ease that pain, all those who had wages lowered will continue to be paid at their original rates for three years. However, former full-time employees who transitioned to part-time work will receive lower pay for fewer hours as soon as the new system comes into play. Training sessions will be offered, both within the library and in partnership with a local college. Specialty workshops, such as one covering the library’s local history archives, will be offered at SPL to fill in the gaps.

A RANGE OF REACTIONS

Amanda Lepage, who has been with SPL for four years and is currently a branch library assistant at its Round Prairie Branch, will be moving into a senior library service associate role—a position that pays more and provides more room for advancement. But it will also have less of the public interaction she enjoys. "I was torn between choosing a job that I love and a job that I know I would be good at and would build my future, and would build skills that I have so I would be able to lead in the system," she told LJ. Still, she is excited about the change. Her background in education, as well as experience running a family company, has given her the right experience for the job. "It's a fairly different position,” she added. “[Now] I do a lot of front desk service to our patrons and some collection stuff. In the new system I will be doing a fair amount of supervision and scheduling.... It's more of an administrative position. It'll be a fairly big change." However, not everyone has been pleased with the SPL restructure. Protesters first made their voices heard in October 2017, when about 40 library employees and supporters gathered outside Saskatoon City Hall to voice their opposition. In March the library board released an 11,000 word FAQ on the restructure and its value. CUPE, responding on social media, stated that the library was being “systematically undermined” and that the proposed changes would result in lower levels of service. "This [restructure] is radically changing the work that we do, it's changing our wages, it's changing where we work,” CUPE president Pamela Ryder, who is currently a branch public service assistant, told LJ. “It's basically changing almost everything about what we're doing, so it's really difficult." On April 30, about 70 protesters, including members of the group Stop the Cuts Saskatoon and representatives of CUPE, gathered outside City Hall protesting what Ryder referred to as SPL’s “top-down toxicity.” In addition, a number of SPL employees objected to being asked to sign a confidentiality agreement as part of their new job offers, which many see as an attempt to head off criticism of the new plan. However, SPL management stated that the one-paragraph clause, which contains reminders about professionalism and privacy laws, is standard language, and Lepage agrees. “Being a business owner, there are things that you expect of your employees," she said. "It's no different than any other company I've ever worked for." Relations with CUPE remain difficult as well. Recent tensions date back to 2016, when SPL attempted to remove all library supervisors from union affiliation. The matter went to arbitration, and it was decided that supervisors had the right to choose for themselves whether they wanted to be in the union or not. The library’s announcement of the restructure in June 2017 came only two weeks after 22 employees were laid off for budgetary reasons, also engendering mistrust on the union’s part. Because the union did not have solid information on the final number of positions that would be available, Ryder explained, CUPE stipulated that in the case of equally qualified candidates, positions would go to those with more seniority. Thus the status of several positions will change; currently nine employees have gained full-time status, and six have moved from full-time to part-time. Library staff have been without a union contract since 2016. But all involved hope to resolve these issues soon. “We want to be able to do our jobs and enjoy them,” said Ryder. “We're constantly striving for wages to be fair…. Union and management, we need to do better for the people working at the library." There has been tension among those who were passed over for promotion, or saw positions they applied for go to employees who have less seniority. “I'm very aware that two of my colleagues who have more seniority and more library-specific experience than me did want the full time senior position that I got, or a position like that,” Lepage told LJ. “That was hard because they're my friends, they're my colleagues, they're great people, and they have great skills. It's bittersweet to be one of the people who benefited from the change when you know that there's people who didn't.” Lepage still has a good relationship with those colleagues, she added, but she sees the divisions. Perhaps the greatest objections among employees, however, involve uncertainty as to what their jobs will look like in practice. Ryder, who worked with children and families in her original position, is unsure how well her new role will fit. “Now only the programmers will do programming.... I'm wondering what my job's going to be like without my weekly time with the kids. I don't know if I'll like it." Even those who are enthusiastic about the change, like Lepage, admit that the new roles are still unclear. “We have job descriptions,” she explained. “But nothing is really ever set in stone until you move into a position and find out OK, this is what actually needs to be done."

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