Multnomah County Library director’s statement on planned workforce reductions

July 28, 2020

On July 7, Multnomah County Library notified its staff that it has made the difficult decision to reduce its workforce. Layoffs will be effective September 30. This is a sad turn of events for everyone at Multnomah County Library. Like other large public library systems, along with businesses, schools and other organizations, our library’s decisions are being driven by COVID-19 and its significant impact on library services and operations for the foreseeable future. 

This is a sad and frustrating decision to make, and I know it is harder for those whose jobs are impacted. We have looked at many ways this library serves the community, but given the very real impact of physical limitations on our services, the library cannot accommodate work for all of the staff it employs.

I want to share with you how we made this decision and what we will do next. In March, when library buildings closed to the public, we had little information about the virus and we hoped for the library closure to be brief. We asked staff who could do their jobs remotely to do so, and we continued to pay the salary and benefits of workers whose jobs cannot be done remotely. As COVID-19 continues to spread within communities everywhere, and state and public health guidelines place limitations on in-person interactions, it became clear we needed to plan around this scenario for a much longer period of time.

Many of the library’s 19 public locations are very small (the smallest at about 3,600 square feet). Considering building layout, exits, restrooms, shelving and furniture and maximum occupancy guidelines, any return to in-building library service must take place with stark limitations. It is reasonable to assume that those requirements will be in place for the foreseeable future. About half of library staff have jobs that require in-person work, such as physically moving library materials. There isn’t enough room inside library buildings to accommodate everyone in the current era. 

The library must honor its obligation to the public that funds the library by acting as a thoughtful and transparent steward of public resources. It’s not business-as-usual. In consultation with the Multnomah County Chair’s Office, Library District Board, and the library’s leadership team, I reached the difficult conclusion that the library cannot pay a significant portion of its workforce indefinitely for work they are not able to do during the pandemic. In this situation, there is simply no good choice at hand. 

The decision to reduce our workforce is not a reflection of the quality of work from staff across the library system, and it doesn't mean that all staff who can't work remotely will be let go. Library staff members have worked in innovative and creative ways during this pandemic. We are currently offering holds pickup by appointment, summer lunches at some locations and a wide range of services online, by phone, email and chat. Our library and its staff members have greatly expanded available resources and made some programs virtual offerings

Looking forward, the library is actively working to shift existing services and stand up new services in a virtual environment, with input from library staff, and in alignment with Multnomah County Library’s priorities. We are planning for library services that look different than they are now, like outdoor computer access and loaning of wi-fi hotspots and Chromebooks. We will look first to recall library staff members for this work wherever possible. Even when we are able to resume some in-building services, it will not be the same as before.

I am deeply grateful to the talented and dedicated workers who make libraries a treasured community asset. We are working with the library’s labor union, AFSCME Local 88, to finalize details of the reduction according to the labor agreement and will notify impacted staff members directly. Our plans involve a series of measures intended to mitigate the impact of workforce reduction on affected staff members, including health care and other benefits for the three months after separation. While such measures don’t fundamentally change the loss of a livelihood, it’s something we can do to make a bad situation a small amount better.

Multnomah County Library is focused on helping our community recover from the pandemic. The library will center race in its work and emphasize efforts that serve those who are the most deeply impacted, with health and safety at the fore. I look forward to the time when these profoundly challenging constraints no longer exist. I am confident that the library will emerge from this crisis with a sharpened focus on our mission of service, even in the most trying of times.

Vailey Oehlke, Director of Libraries
Multnomah County Library