Louisville Metro Government has abandoned and endangered its library workers: a perspective from the Union President of Local 3425

I learned on January 25th that the Louisville Free Public Library’s workers are not considered essential employees and will thus not be vaccinated in either the 1B or 1C phase of vaccination.

My husband let me know that he is scheduled for vaccination because of his job at UPS. He works in an office with limited contact with other coworkers, no contact with the public, and no involvement in shipping medical equipment, so I wondered when our workers would be scheduled for their vaccines given our frequent contact with the public and the essential nature of the access to computer use and help we’re currently providing.

When I asked our Human Resources representative when we would be scheduled, I was directed to the same chart I’ve seen a million times:

I was told that UPS counts under “Transportation and Logistics,” but since our access and informational services have not been included in the bulleted list under “Essential Workers,” we would not be vaccinated in phase 1C.

If our services are not essential enough to warrant priority vaccination, then we are not essential enough to be offering in-person services when our county is a COVID-19 “red zone.” We demand that the Louisville Free Public Library either immediately reduces services to curbside pick-up only or prioritizes us for vaccination with other essential workers.

Little Pay, Little Benefits

I wish I could say this news came as a surprise, but unfortunately, this is a continuation of abuse that library workers have suffered during and before the pandemic.

Library union workers have received no cost of living adjustments, raises, or annual longevity pay in two and a half years due to contract negotiations that started late and were subsequently delayed by the pandemic. Our current negotiations team asked Louisville Metro Government for a simple short term extension of our contract, including only the things we had previously negotiated and our cost of living adjustments, raises, and longevity compensation with back pay for the past two and a half years. We contacted Metro Government the week of Thanksgiving with this proposal, and have yet to hear back. The extension of the highly controversial Police Union Contract that raised their compensation in a very similar way to what we have proposed was passed by Metro Council in early November.

Many of us have used all of our paid time off and are facing going unpaid for quarantines or risking discipline if we get caught lying on the daily wellness checks. All metro employees were given 2 weeks of emergency sick leave for quarantine at the beginning of the pandemic. In the eleven months since then, many of us have had to quarantine multiple times due to a strict wellness check that, among other things, has us quarantine for 2 weeks if we travel out of state for any reason other than work or doctor’s appointments. Yes, that includes Indiana. I personally have had to quarantine 3 times, twice for a flu/covid-like illness that I never tested positive for, and once because I helped my disabled parents in Indiana move a broken stove, and there are many other times that I have felt like I wasn’t being perfectly honest on the wellness check to keep from being sent home. I have no sick time or vacation left, and I’m not the only one. Metro’s response to this need was to raise our cap for saving vacation for the year — that’s right, we get nothing extra, but if we happen to save over 60 days it won’t disappear at the end of the year like it usually would.

On top of all this, we have no parental leave, Metro Government has declined to continue the CARES Act’s extra FMLA for parents caring for children, and we, like many other essential workers in the pandemic, have received no hazard pay for continuing to work with the public while other workers were able to work from home.

The Pandemic so Far

At the very beginning of the pandemic, when Jefferson County Public Schools sent everyone home to begin online learning and businesses all across the state were shuttered, Metro Government planned to keep the library open, only cancelling programs and meeting room reservations. Our union members and patrons voiced their concerns to the mayor and council members, and the first Monday JCPS didn’t have school, the public libraries were also thankfully closed to the public.

Unfortunately, this didn’t then lead to workers being sent home to work and do professional development at home, as happened in so many library systems across the country. Instead, we reported every day to closed libraries and worked on our collections or did many other tasks that could have been done in our homes. When workers worried about their safety brought their concerns about physically coming to work when every other place seemed to be keeping their workers at home, we received the message only that we were annoying our councilmembers and were being seen as the whiny metro department.

Then, almost all library workers were furloughed for 3 months from the end of May to the end of July. Workers found out they were being furloughed through the Mayor’s Press Conference announcing it, not library administration. In his press conference, Mayor Greg Fischer claimed that we were running out of work to do and that’s why we were being furloughed. We in fact still had plenty of work to do, and many workers left piles of collection management activities unfinished as we all left that day in May. Most workers, but not all, were thankfully able to receive unemployment benefits.

Many workers actually have characterized the furlough to me as a healing time. We were safe at home, we had money coming in, we didn’t need to worry about what new way Metro Government would find to endanger us. Many missed the usefulness of our work, the joy of our busiest time: summer, and most of all, our patrons, but being able to be home during some of the worst times of the pandemic did bring a lot of us peace.

When we returned to the library at the end of July, we had many new procedures to learn, from curbside reservations to cleaning procedures after patrons use computers. From the beginning of the pandemic I and other union leaders had been asking what would happen when we had a positive case. Would we know if our coworkers were positive and we were potentially exposed? What would happen? We received only half responses, usually that the Incident Management Team was responsible for making COVID-19 policies and that CDC guidelines would be followed.

We quickly learned what would happen when someone tested positive because it happened: the library would tell no one and rely entirely on health department contact tracing. Workers found out about positives in their workspaces only after told directly by their positive coworkers. After contact tracing broke down in Louisville, we had an incident where workers that had been directly exposed and named as close contacts weren’t even told. The fallout from that was that the library said it would do its own contact tracing in the future. As far as union leadership knows, there have been at least 7 incidents of locations with positive COVID-19 cases across the system, but it is important to emphasize that we only know of these incidents because of our membership informing us, not because we have been given official information from any source, so it is likely that this number is not exactly correct.

We share phones (Metro has provided no headsets for workers, despite longer hours on phones for workers with our new curbside service), keyboards, chairs, and eating spaces with our coworkers. We pass books back and forth to each other, greet patrons at the door and stand within feet of them to take their temperatures and tell them the new rules for using our space. We share these libraries with patrons that break those new rules and pull down their masks, or walk up to our desks and lean around the protective plexiglass to talk to us, or insist that we let them in even though our schedules are full.

All of this, and we will not be told if a coworker tests positive at our location. We will only be told if that coworker lists us as a “close contact,” something workers are actively encouraged not to do as it is implied that naming someone a close contact means you were breaking social distancing rules.

As I said before, union leaders have repeatedly asked for policies in writing, ways to contact the Incident Management Team to report safety violations, and for numbers for how many positives we have had, and received little response. This January I filed multiple open records requests to try to get more information. They haven’t yielded much so far, but I have included the results of those requests at the bottom of this article.

One of the things that is constantly emphasized to us is how much we mean to our patrons. That patrons come to the library not just for the books, or the computers, or even the programs, but for the excellent service and relationships they have with library staff. We feel exactly the same way. There is not one library worker that doesn’t have an amazing story about touching our patrons’ hearts through the perfect book recommendation, or helping them through a difficult time with necessary computer help, or giving that teen a safe space where they could finally open up to us about what’s gnawing at them. We are here for our patrons and we want to help as much as we can while still keeping ourselves, our families, and our patrons and their families safe. When we finally open our doors for full in-person use, I don’t want to be plagued with thoughts that we might be endangering our patrons; I already have enough of those thoughts as it is with the computer use we currently have.

I also want to note how good of a relationship our union local has had with our library administration throughout this trying time. We certainly believe they’ve made missteps, but overall I certainly do not think our library director, Lee Burchfield, has been trying to do anything other than keep staff safe in the face of extraordinary odds and constraints that none of his predecessors have had to face. That he and the other members of LFPL administration have been able to keep us closed to the public for so long with pressure on all sides to open as much as possible is an amazing feat. We believe that most of our strife has come from a city and state government that doesn’t understand what libraries are, what we do, and continually forgets about us until we speak up and remind them that we’re here.

The reason we’re sharing this so late in the pandemic is precisely because of the good relationship we’ve tried to maintain with our library administration. We’ve done our best to solve our issues internally and cooperatively, but it’s become clear that to move things forward and keep our workers safe a public statement had to be made.

Further Context

It’s important to put LFPL’s workers’ experiences in the context of the larger worker financial and health crisis we find ourselves in. It is our understanding that no library workers in Kentucky are prioritized for vaccination, though many library workers in other states are in 1B or 1C. It’s also important to note that many other Louisville Metro essential workers are not considered essential in Kentucky’s interpretation of the CDC’s schedule.

We are not the only library union that has had trouble knowing the scale of COVID-19 outbreaks in their workplaces because of lack of information, either. In a meeting I had with other AFSCME library workers’ unions, only the union leader from California said that workers were informed of positive cases in their buildings — because California OSHA had made it a requirement.

And, as always, workers of color and queer workers are hit harder by all these inequities, with shortcomings in healthcare making the elders of vulnerable groups likely younger than the 70+ threshold for prioritized elders.

Libraries’ Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic White Paper from AFSCME.

State Representative Attica Scott’s letter to Secretary Friedlander and Commissioner Stack about the shortfalls of the vaccination schedule when it comes to addressing institutional and systemic racism.

Forgotten, but relied upon

For anyone who has made it this far but is still questioning whether library workers are doing work essential enough to warrant early vaccination, an anecdote: the same day I learned that we were not prioritized for the vaccine with other essential workers, Mayor Fischer announced that ten million extra dollars are now available for utility assistance for Louisville residents. The press release highlights our libraries’ computer appointments for residents without computer access.

If you would like your library workers to be treated better, please contact our city and state government leaders on our behalf. Tell them that Kentucky library workers need to be vaccinated with other essential workers and that Louisville Free Public Library workers need our cost of living adjustments, raises, and longevity pay.

You can contact the Louisville Mayor’s office here.

The Kentucky governor’s office is here.

If you live in Kentucky, you can find your state legislators here.

If you live in Louisville, I urge you to especially contact your councilperson. Many times our most responsive representatives are our city council members. You can find their contact information here.

Open Records Requests Appendix

January 6th ORR for incidents of positive COVID-19 library workers and metro’s response to the potential workplace exposure. Louisville Metro claimed to have no records of incidents.

In the Nurse Triage form we received from my January 14th Open Records Request, you can see described a spreadsheet for workers exposed to COVID-19 while at work, which isn’t exactly what I asked for in this ORR. I plan to file a new one soon asking for an anonymized version of this spreadsheet.

January 6th ORR largely concerning IMT makeup and policies and procedures. I received a response recently to my query that finding all these records is taking more time and that we can expect them around February 25th.

January 14th ORR concerning policies and procedures related to employee quarantines. Metro Government’s documents in response to this request can be found here.

Board Member, Organizing Committee Chair, and Former President, AFSCME Local 3425 | 2020 @traindems Staff Academy Communications Alum | she/her