In Rockford, some frontline public library workers are asking for more safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alice Mitchell, a children’s librarian at the Rockford Public Library’s East Branch, said that returning to work hasn’t been easy. “It's been immensely stressful," she said. "Everything is stressful. every single minute of the day.”
She and some of her co-workers organized a petition. They’re represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 3350. They’re calling for the Rockford Public Library Board of Directors to make some changes to make the facilities more safe.
And Mitchell isn’t alone, she said that 80% of the unionized staff signed the petition asking for what she calls “common sense” health measures.
• Install plexiglass shields for the circulation desks.
• Provide an adequate amount of face shields for all staff tasked with interacting with the public.
• Provide disposable sanitation wipes to clean down surfaces and prevent the spread of contaminants.
• Tape off segments in 6-foot intervals to promote social distancing.
• Place limits on how many patrons per square foot and how long they can remain in the library.
But the union hasn’t heard of any substantial policy changes being implemented since the petition was turned over. And several other frontline library workers said that they aren’t holding their breath. The consensus among frontline library workers is that at every step, library management and the board of trustees has dismissed their suggestions.
“We were worried, Mitchell said. "We’re genuinely concerned about our safety at our place of work, and the people who are in charge of making sure we are safe. Didn't care. They didn't listen.”
Another library worker who wished to remain anonymous said that part of the trouble at the library is that it's unclear what kind of authority library workers have to ask patrons to wear their masks appropriately or observe library time limits. “We've also been told that, you know, you can tell them but you know, that's basically it," they said. "They really don't want to make any type of rip about it if they don't keep the mask above their nose.”
In one instance, the police department was called when one patron would not comply with the mask guidelines. But the anonymous library worker said that the library has also loosened on some other health precautions that were observed more rigorously at the beginning of the pandemic. “We do not quarantine the book," the anonymous source said. "We used to do that and we used to have them sit for several days and there was a cleanser that we wipe spray on them. And this was doing curbside pickup uh, once we opened up all that ceased.
Mitchell agreed and said that dropping this precaution does make her worry. “And then someone else finds that book and takes it home that evening,” she continued. “So an item that someone had at their home with or without sick people, we have no idea of knowing they could take that book home to a new house that very same day, they could touch that book in the library and they would have no idea”
Local 3350 union president, Janella Harper, said that one of the things that troubles her most is how library staff are being asked to wipe down public materials like computers and self-checkout kiosks. “We've been given rags, to use with disinfectant for cleaning," she said. "We're expected to reuse them which is a concern because it seems like you're just spreading things around."
The anonymous source clarified later that these aren’t just any kind of rags. “We use a rag that looks like someone's took a T shirt and tore that off," they said. "And that's what we wipe down the computers with. And it's not like we get a clean rag every day we use that rag over and over and over.”
Mitchell said that on top of the rags being made of t-shirts and reused everyday, staff is asked to use disinfectant sparingly, which can be an issue. "And we're being told to use these disinfectants. Spray the cloth a couple of times, but not too much and then just wipe down," she said. "You know, surfaces and these cloths are not super absorbent, so it's really difficult to get them wet enough to be effective."
Oliver Baer is president of the Rockford Public Libraries Board of Trustees. He said the current safety measures are above board. “There's nothing in what we're doing as far as the reusable wipes that is not compliant with the requirements," he said. "In fact, it's disposable or not. The safety assessment from the Winnebago County Health Department is the same and we're certainly complying. If there's any direction about using it sparingly. It's not at the sacrifice of safety.”
Baer said that he’d seen the petition from the frontline library workers. “Now, certainly some of the items on the list," he said, "are above and beyond what is required by the Winnebago County and also common practice at libraries.”
Nearby, Cherryvale libraries have reopened and are following different guidelines than the Rockford libraries. For one, they use disposable paper towels, and while they haven’t implemented any kind of plexiglass at the service desks, they have installed plastic sheeting and used marking on the ground to signal safe distances to patrons.
Rockford public library employee Alice Mitchell said the concerns are real: “One of the things I've told myself about library work for ages." she said, "[is] that if I don't do my job properly, no one's gonna die. And I always said it as a joke.” But the way Mitchell sees it now, the stakes are a lot higher. “Now, if I don't do my job properly," she said, "something very serious could happen. If I don't tell people to pull their masks up, something very serious could happen.”
Local 3350 hasn’t heard back on whether the libraries will adopt any more health precautions, but they remain hopeful. The next meeting of the Rockford Public Library Board of Trustees is September 28.
- Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.