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Hennepin librarians want staff cuts restored

Union librarians and support staff called on Hennepin Co. Board to restore positions that were eliminated during the pandemic, and to fill vacancies from attrition.

MINNEAPOLIS — Librarians played against stereotype Monday. They could be seen shouting and chanting outside the East Lake branch of the Hennepin County Library as passing motorists honked their horns in support.

Members of two AFSCME union locals were there to call attention to what they contend are critical staffing shortages throughout the library system at a time when hours are being extended to match pre-pandemic levels of service.

"We are asking get the 66 full-time positions back that they cut last year and that they fill all of the 30 vacancies that they currently have," Angel Gardner-Kocher, the president of AFSCME Local 2864, told reporters.

"We have staff that are getting ill due to overwork, having stress injuries. We do not have enough staff to operate our buildings."

As part of budget-cutting efforts during the pandemic, the Hennepin County Board eliminated 66 library positions that were vacant at the time. Since then 30 other vacancies caused by retirements and resignations have opened up and haven't been filled yet.

The librarians and clerical staff that gathered Monday said the staffing cuts have impaired their ability to offer basic service, let alone some of the community outreached they could do prior to the pandemic.

County commissioners enacted a hiring freeze as part of an effort to hold the line on property tax hikes during the COVID pandemic.  They're currently wrestling with details of the 2022 county budget while also negotiating contracts with unions, including those at Monday's rally.

Joshua Yet on the Hennepin County Library said management is trying to fill the 30 current vacancies.

"We’re looking to augment that staffing and fill those vacancies that have come up since last year’s budget, and we’re making sure we protect the workers that we do have in the upcoming budget year," Yetman told KARE.

"We’re continuing to do that hiring. It’s a slower process. We have to, just like an ordinary business, we have to make a case for why do we need these staff, how are they going to be used? How are they going to be serving the public?"

He said the 66 positions eliminated were spread across the 41 libraries in the system, albeit unevenly.  He said the library system currently has 562 employees, including 456 working direct public-facing roles inside libraries.

"The number of staff Hennepin County employs at the libraries is a testament to how important the libraries are. The idea that we have hundreds of library staff staffing 41 locations means that everybody recognizes the value of libraries, especially now, after the arrival of COVID-19."

Teresa Barnhill, a library operations specialist at the Ridgedale branch who belongs to the AFSCME Local 2822, said the first thing customers noticed is delays in checking out books and other items that haven't been returned to the shelves yet.

"The main way it affects our patrons is that our material, once it gets returned, it sits in our back room for weeks and weeks and weeks," Barnhill explained. "So, it might say on the website it’s available for check out, but really it’s sitting in the back in a pile waiting to come back out."

Librarian Kimberly Trinh-Sy, who brought her baby Walter to the rally, said it's been difficult dealing with limited numbers at the Franklin branch where she's stationed.

"The staffing has just been really tight in a lot of the buildings. And it’s hard, it’s stressful, especially with such a critical need right now," Trinh-Sy explained.

"People are using libraries because they need job resources, computer access, things like that, and we’re not able to offer that fully in the best way we know we can."

She said she's fielding questions daily from patrons who are wondering what became of the adult basic education that was traditionally offered at the Franklin branch before the pandemic under the heading of the Franklin Learning System.

"It used a one-on-one tutoring model for people that were learning English, studying for their GED or studying for their citizenship test," Trinh-Sy said.

Hennepin County's Yetman said that service will be returning eventually, through partnerships with other agencies, but won't be centered on just one library.

"It will come back but just not in the same way it was before. It won’t be isolated just to Franklin Learning Center. We want to provide access to adult basic education throughout Hennepin County."

The county will be entering mediation with both unions that work inside libraries, which is adding extra tension to the budgeting process. The librarians are seeking a 7% cost-of-living increase.

They're also asking the county board to use some of its federal COVID relief money to give library workers hazard pay because they're dealing with customers who may not be vaccinated.