Local public library staff, working in close proximity with patrons in indoor environments, are concerned about their safety and feel overwhelmed, saying they are providing social services beyond their job description.

This story also appeared in Hyde Park Herald

Library workers are essential workers in Illinois, but unless they are 65 years old or older, they are in Group 1c, meaning they will not be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine until around March 29.

The Herald spoke with workers at several mid-South Side library branches. All those interviewed asked for varying degrees of anonymity in order to speak freely without fear of retaliation from the CPL administration. 

While social distancing measures are in place at library branches, patrons are asked to leave after an hour and everyone is required to wear a mask. But staff said the nature of their jobs means that they cannot practically socially distance from patrons. People at the library need intimate help using a computer or scanner, for example, and screens cannot be seen from six feet away.

Time limits are practically unenforceable, one worker said. Compliance depends greatly upon the location, though it has gotten better as the pandemic has gone on. Still, patrons oftentimes do not want to wear masks. Before the pandemic, people would spend an entire day at the library, or send their children to libraries for the entire day.

“We have some librarians who feel we should be shut down to the public, we should only be curbside. Then we have other librarians who feel that that that’s not necessary, but we do need better systems — for instance, people should not be allowed to just sit in the library,” said the worker. 

“We’ve been on the frontline since the beginning of this,” said another worker. “We come in contact with so many individuals over a day’s period. Why wasn’t it essential that we should be vaccinated along with others who were getting vaccinated? Us being in close contact with others, being in close contact with a lot of individuals coming in here daily, that puts us in harm’s way.”

Another longtime library worker said it has been “alright” working through the pandemic and feels safe behind a mask but acknowledged that some colleagues do not.

“The public, if they would respect us and and what we ask them to do, we only ask them to wear the mask and keep the distance to protect them too,” the worker said. “Some of them get upset, but we’re sorry. We’re trying to keep ourselves safe and keep them safe.”

“The children are better. You tell them to do something, and they’ll do it. It’s the adults that may give you a hard time.”

Denise, who works at the Blackstone Branch, 4904 S. Lake Park Ave., said the issue is that people do not follow social distancing.

“We’ve had people flat-out refuse to put masks on,” she said. “I feel like we’re like the first line, that we should be considered just like doctors and nurses, because they’re doing everything they can do to keep their library online to keep connect with people.” 

If firefighters, police officers and teachers are eligible for the vaccine now, Denise wonders why librarians are not. Furthermore, she is upset about limited paid time off in case they get sick. All things considered, she doesn’t think she libraries should be open unless employees get the vaccine. 

“There’s not enough consideration for our health,” she said. “At first I was against (the vaccine). Now I’m not, because it’s just like a flu shot or a shingles shot. At this point, things being like it is, we need all the help that we can get in terms of arming ourselves against this situation.”

A security guard at one of the branches, who is age-eligible to get vaccinated and has gotten one dose, said working with people experiencing homelessness taking sanctuary in the library were not the best working conditions.

“You’re dealing with people who are in hopeless conditions and stuff like that,” the guard said. “But I mean, you deal with it because that’s the system. I think they should have a different program for these people who don’t have anywhere to go, people with mental problems. But other than that, you just deal with the situation.”

“I just personally do not think that the library should be the sanctuary for all these problems,” the guard said, adding that trained social workers, not librarians, should be helping people experiencing homelessness.

The guard said “not really” when asked about a feeling of safety on the job: “I don’t feel safe with the pandemic, no. But I’m saying the overall conditions and whatnot — we have to deal with people on the fringe of society because of their conditions, and then this pandemic is something that’s totally new. You constantly have to tell people to adhere to the rules, and they don’t want to do it. It’s not a pleasant situation here.”

“I double-mask, I wash my hands, I got the vaccine and everything. I’m doing everything that I can do to protect myself,” the guard said. “Because of the fact that you have to do with the things like that, it’s not so pleasant. The whole thing is, you deal with what you have to deal with.”

Employees said they are proud to be doing their essential work during the pandemic. Many of the patrons who come to the library are elderly and may be hard of hearing. Masks make it harder to hear people when they are talking. Some patrons have used the computers to book vaccine appointments, with instructions to get help from library employees.

“I think we are more of a social service agency than we are a library, and a very ill-prepared social service agency,” said one worker. 

“We’re social workers. We take care of homeless. We’re storytellers. We’re computer workers. We’re daycare, after-school,” another said. “We’re happy to help. We’re here to help. This is the community; the community has a lot of needs, and where else can they go? If they want a computer, where are they going?”

“If we’re going to be a warming center and a place where people can stay despite their mental illnesses, then I think we need more social services in the city to help, so that people are filtering to libraries as their only option for a warm place to be,” one other said. “It affects the people who want to use the library for what a library is intended for. Librarians don’t go to school to become social workers. They go to school to become librarians, and I think that is the biggest issue for most librarians.”

The worker compared the librarians’ industry to teachers, though the librarians’ union, AFSCME Council 31, does not have the Chicago Teachers Union’s ability to strike. The union has repeated asked Mayor Lori Lightfoot to close branches during the pandemic, WTTW reports, and is lobbying the city to vaccinate library workers with other Phase 1b frontline workers.

“If we’re going to be essential workers, then put something behind that,” a worker said. “I definitely think we’re under more threat than a teacher, in my opinion, because teachers are going to have a more controlled environment. We’re dealing with the health of people coming in and out all day long. Different people — not the same pod. Why are we treated any less important than schools, other than they can strike?”

“There are fears that I’m sure every one of us has,” said another library worker, of “catching COVID, passing it onto other staff members — there is fear in our jobs that we do. No one wants to take anything home with them when we leave work. But does that stop us doing what we do? No, it doesn’t. We keep going forward. We keep charging on.

“I pray every day that we get through this without any challenges that might put us at harm or risk.”

Reached for comment, CPL Director of Government and Public Affairs Patrick Molloy said that the library’s safety policies and protocols have worked to keep workers safe during the pandemic, with 53 out of 1,018 staffers testing positive for COVID-19, or 5%, as of Feb. 16. He noted that 22% of Chicago Fire Department workers have tested positive, and 15% of Department of Water Management have. 

Out of the 53 CPL cases, Molloy said 46 were not work-related, three were and the cause of four had yet to be determined.

“We’re very proud of all our library personnel who have been serving Chicagoans, including our most vulnerable citizens, during the pandemic,” Molloy emailed.

“As it relates to the vaccine, categories of residents who are eligible for Phase 1b are set by federal and state guidelines. The city has aligned with the state’s interpretation of and adherence to those guidelines. Workers in Phase 1b are those in high-risk settings at substantially greater risk for COVID exposure, infection and spread because they are less able to socially distance or wear masks due to the nature and location of their jobs. Workers in industries and occupations important to the functioning of society and at increased risk of exposure not included in Phase 1b – from library to sanitation — will be included in Phase 1c.”

CPL safety guidelines are for staff to only interact with patrons from 6 feet away.

This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.

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It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.