#ProtectLibraryWorkers & communities: Don't reopen libraries until it's safe

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(Photo Credit: Brad Sigal)

Library workers care deeply about the communities we serve, which includes doing our part to keep our patrons and ourselves safe during this pandemic. Libraries serve as important community hubs for connection and learning. They are busy, well-loved spaces, which is why their closure has been so critical in the time of coronavirus. Community spaces like libraries could easily become infection zones, and libraries around the country have taken the difficult but necessary action of closing down for the sake of broader community health. 

As the discussion has moved from closures to considerations for reopenings, library workers are starting to think about what safely returning to physical work may be like. On a routine work day, library workers handle materials, touch surfaces, share computers, assist with technology use, clean all manner of messes, and conduct checkout and reference transactions, all typically from much less than six feet away. Without proper health and safety measures in place, libraries could easily become breeding grounds for the virus.

In order to ensure the health and safety of our communities and ourselves, we demand the following measures be taken before any libraries are reopened:

  • Every effort must be made to make libraries a part of state, county, and/or municipal reopening plans. In the absence of this, a clear, slow, evidence-based phased plan for returning to work must be developed by state library agencies and municipalities in alignment with state and local recommendations.
  • Library staff must not be forced to return to work before stay-at-home orders are lifted.
  • If stay-at-home orders are lifted, there must be a sustained reduction in new COVID 19 cases within the community for at least 14 days before library staff return to work.
  • Flexible and robust paid sick leave policies and remote work options must be available to all library employees, regardless of position type. Library management must continue to allow teleworking, especially for individuals who are in high-risk groups.
  • Childcare support must be provided for workers who are unable to send their children to school or daycare. Paid time off for family leave should be offered to accommodate these challenges as well.
  • Library management must develop clear, detailed plans for reopening such as these examples. These plans must collect input from and be shared with all staff members, and must be as locally specific and appropriate as possible.
  • The library must have access to the necessary materials to maintain high hygiene standards without compromising the protection of local health care professionals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, or people caring for family at home. That means PPE must be provided to all library staff, but only after there is no shortage of it for essential workers. Additionally, libraries must be well stocked with disinfectants for all surfaces that are on the EPA's List N for use against SARS-CoV-2, and staff must be thoroughly trained in proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures.
  • Surveillance technologies, such as temperature checks, cannot be implemented without scientific evidence of their reliability in identifying possible infections, and must come with detailed policy about how long the technologies will be in place, who will have access to the data, how it will be stored, and how law enforcement requests for the data will be handled.
  • These demands must continue to be met until there is a safe and effective vaccine to guarantee freedom of movement without spreading the risk of COVID-19 infection.

Libraries across the country are tried-and-true economic and workforce development hubs. The economic recovery depends immeasurably on the health of library workers and the continued existence of their positions as the work begins. If it is not safe to resume physical operations, workers can still provide online services to people in need, especially unemployment and other social benefits. We can bridge digital divides safely by extending WiFi access to parking lots and working with other municipal departments to do so through other creative means, such as turning decommissioned school buses into mobile WiFi hubs and providing devices to the underserved. As libraries contend with their many incompatibilities with social distancing, they need to have their energy freed up for efforts to reconfigure and redistribute what public space is right now.

Libraries will be necessary and important to their communities as we begin to strategize and recover from this crisis. It's time to treat all library workers as if we are necessary and important, too.



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