When Librarians Become Disaster Service Workers

In San Francisco, employment agreements say that librarians can be deployed as disaster workers. Elsewhere, librarians voluntarily pitch in to help municipalities.

Librarians at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.
Photo by Jason Hill

To help fight the effects of the pandemic and keep city employees working, San Francisco is giving them new jobs. With libraries closed, librarians are among those who are staffing food banks and learning how to conduct contact tracing.

“It feels like being drafted,” says Cathy Cormier, program manager at The Mix, San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)’s teen center, located at the main branch. Cormier has been a call center representative for the city’s food bank as it pivots to delivering food weekly to senior citizens. “It feels good to use my skills as an information professional,” she says. “I’m lucky to have a job that matches my skill set.”

A clause in employees’ work agreements allows Cormier and other SFPL employees to be deployed as disaster service workers during an emergency in San Francisco.

City librarians had the choice of accepting a new assignment and continuing to receive their salary, or declining and using sick time and paid time off to maintain their salary, according to Meghan Monahan, a librarian from the SFPL North Beach branch’s children’s services department.

So far, only a small percentage of city workers are taking on new jobs. But librarians and election officer employees make up the bulk of the repurposed workers.

Working from home, Cormier answers calls, while Monahan until recently worked packing food boxes with the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. The food bank moved operations outside to a 60-foot-long tent to accommodate the influx of workers while maintaining social distancing. Monahan, who says she could walk to her library job, rode her bike four miles to the food bank.

“We’re there because we actually care for our communities,” she says. In a lot of ways, she feels she is serving the same people from “the other side of the computer.” The food bank recently filled a record 1,600 bags of groceries (pictured) in one day, she reports.

The production may have been the byproduct of one of the unexpected benefits to using reassigned workers. As an assembly line was being set up outside, food bank officials say that ultra-organized librarians created a more efficient way to pack the food bags and even to maximize the number of bags per bin to meet delivery trucks’ capacity.

The same professional pivoting is happening across the country, with some librarians using their expertise to help, while others are forced to take on jobs they weren’t trained for.

For some, working while their buildings were shut down was less about taking on a different job and more about doing the same job under different circumstances. That was the case for Johnna Schultz, the assistant director of the Effingham (IL) Public Library.

About 9,000 people use the rural library every month, Schultz says, with many needing to use fax machines and computers and to get documents notarized. When her library closed, Schultz quickly partnered with a local nonprofit to open a small space with computers where residents could apply for benefits and more services.

Schultz meets residents in the parking lot to screen them; if they need access to the computers, they use one of the three machines inside, which are spaced six feet apart. So far, people have been registering for free government phones through a local grant, applying for unemployment (which can’t be done on a mobile phone, she says), and checking eligibility with the local food bank.

READ: Educators Use 3-D Printers to Create and Donate PPE

“It’s a neighborhood thing. You do your best for them,” she says. “I would go crazy if I couldn’t do this. I love to serve.”

In Oregon, Multnomah County librarians are being asked to volunteer in homeless shelters. Some elderly workers or those with health conditions have expressed concerns about their safety in doing this work.

In Hennepin County, MN, county officials asked unionized librarians to sign up for a reassignment that might land them at a local hotel where homeless residents are housed or inside a local jail, where they would be taking temperatures. Ali Fuhrman, office specialist II at Hennepin County Library’s Hosmer Library and president of AFSCME Local 2822 (Hennepin County Clerical and Related), says that workers don’t have the needed training, and any reassignments should be voluntary.

Right now, workers have a choice about taking on new jobs. But if they refuse, they will not be paid and they won't be eligible for unemployment, says Fuhrman. She also criticized the library system for reopening for curbside book pickup while ignoring the critical needs of poor residents, many of whom need internet service to apply for social services.

In San Francisco, the first effort after libraries closed caused concern, Monahan says. The city tried to designate some branches for teen use. Staff questioned their lack of personal protective equipment, and the program was canceled after the first day, when only 12 teens showed up across 27 branches.

As the pandemic evolves, librarians are facing reassignments, too. After three weeks at the food bank, Monahan was told her assignment as a disaster service worker was complete. She just started her next job: working on a virtual STEM programming committee for SFPL.

READ: How Librarians Are Supporting Students and Teachers during the Shutdown | SLJ COVID-19 Survey
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Susana Lewis

I live in San Luis Obispo and am a children’s librarian. We, too, have been asked to work as Disaster service workers. The job that I have taken up is working in a warehouse distributing PPE for clinics, hospitals and other offices around the county. It is an amazing feeling to be able to do something that is helping the community and our essential workers stay safe. I do miss the library, but am lucky to be healthy and be able to serve my community in this capacity.

Posted : May 02, 2020 03:19



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