Libraries Reopen in COVID-19 Hot Spots: Are Library Staff Being Protected?

Lindsey Williams

Staff Writer

Lindsey Williams is a former teen services library worker who loves talking about books almost as much as she loves reading them. In addition to Book Riot, her work has appeared on The Nerd Daily and in the towering stack of half-filled notebooks in her closet. She lives in Arizona with her husband and their pit bull, Peaches. Find her on Instagram @lindsgillett.

Lindsey Williams

Staff Writer

Lindsey Williams is a former teen services library worker who loves talking about books almost as much as she loves reading them. In addition to Book Riot, her work has appeared on The Nerd Daily and in the towering stack of half-filled notebooks in her closet. She lives in Arizona with her husband and their pit bull, Peaches. Find her on Instagram @lindsgillett.

Arizona has made headlines quite often this summer as the state’s COVID-19 cases soared. As of August 13, the CDC reports that Arizona currently ranks third in cases per capita, falling only behind Louisiana and New York City.

In the state’s most populous county, Maricopa, two major library systems have yet to reopen. The Phoenix Public Library System, which has 17 branches located throughout the Phoenix area, states on their website that it “continues to remain closed to in-building visits in order to ensure we are doing all we can to keep our community and staff safe during our ongoing response to the Coronavirus pandemic.” The Maricopa County Library District, which has 20 branches located throughout the county, has also remained closed “in order to ensure we are doing all we can to keep our staff and community safe during this crisis.”

Despite this, several city libraries in Maricopa County made the decision to reopen, some as early as June 1. This begs the question: If the two major library systems in Maricopa County remain closed to the public to ensure the safety of their staff and patrons, what are the libraries that have chosen to reopen doing to protect their own?

Avondale Public Library

Avondale Public Library was one of the last libraries in the state to close and one of the first libraries in the state to reopen, opening their doors to the public on June 1. According to a former employee, part-time library staff were required to report to work on-site or use any banked sick time and take unpaid leave throughout the entirety of the library’s initial closure, while several library leadership positions were permitted to work remotely.

Policies like this often put the lowest paid library staff at the highest risk of exposure, while salaried staff with benefits are permitted to telecommute. Avondale Public Library’s part-time Page and Library Assistant positions currently pay $13.16 and $14.71 hourly respectively, less than the starting wage at Target, with neither position offering health benefits.

Avondale Library leadership declined to comment on what precautions the library is taking to protect staff safe since opening to the public, instead directing queries to the library’s website. However, the website fails to provide information on whether they are providing PPE, whether patrons and staff are notified if a library staff member tests positive for COVID-19, or details of specific safety measures put into place to protect library staff.

The website states that “staff will be periodically sanitizing high touch areas, but will be unable to comprehensively sanitize every item or surface.” Twenty customers are allowed in the library at a time, with available services currently ranging from browsing the collection, one hour of daily public computer usage, and desk services with the exception of cash pay. While Avondale Public Library opened on June 1, the library did not implement a mask requirement until June 21, after it was mandated by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.

book lot in bookcase
Photo by Paul Schafer on Unsplash

Chandler Public Library

Chandler Public Library reopened under a reservation-only model on August 3 as part of their “Book It! Back to School” service.

Library Manager Rachelle Kuzyk told Book Riot, “Our Book It! program is actually an evolution in service as we’ve responded and adapted to community and staff needs during COVID-19. The Chandler Public Library closed on Council direction on March 19th, reintroduced holds pick-up on May 4th, and then opened for regular patron access (with social distancing restrictions) on May 18th. In response to Governor Ducey’s executive order on June 29th, Chandler Public Library closed again on July 1st. We’ve all learned so much about the virus and personal safety during this time. The reservation option is absolutely the safest way for us to provide library services to those who need it the most, while continuing to keep our employees safe.”

Masks are provided to and required for all staff and provided for patrons should they forget to bring one when they visit. Staff has access to gloves and sanitizer to use as often as they feel necessary, and hand sanitizer stands are also positioned in the lobbies for guest use.

Kuzyk told Book Riot that while the library has reopened to the public on a reservation-only basis, they currently have many library staff on telework agreements. Decisions regarding remote work are made on a case-by-case basis, with the employee’s supervisor and the Library Manager. Additionally, all budgeted City of Chandler employees working at least 30 hours (full-time) or 20 hours (part-time) are offered the opportunity to enroll for health benefits and insurance.

Glendale Public Library

The Glendale Public Library System has reopened at limited capacity for hold pickups, drive-through pickups, and walk through service, in which patrons have the ability to browse new releases and popular items in a limited setting and use no-contact checkout to take them home. No reading spaces or computers are accessible at this time.

When asked if library staff had the option to work remotely during the pandemic, Chief Librarian Michael Beck told Book Riot that the library has “implemented optional telecommuting for any position that can accommodate service delivery remotely, and is based on organizational need. Not all positions within the city can accommodate telecommuting and it is the department head’s responsibility to make that determination.”

Additionally, PPE is provided for all city employees, and face coverings are mandatory at all times in common areas and where physical distancing of six feet or more cannot be maintained. Patrons are also provided with a face covering if they do not have one available to them.

In regards to other methods being used to protect the safety of library staff, Beck told Book Riot that the library staff working on-site are performing regular cleaning and sanitation of equipment and public spaces, and that a plastic splash guard has been installed at all public service desks. All regular part-time and full-time employees are offered health benefits and insurance coverage.

As far as exposure to COVID-19, Beck says “the city follows the recommended CDC and public health notification protocols and will notify other employees if they were within six feet for a prolonged period, in accordance with CDC guidelines.”

Scottsdale Public Library

The Scottsdale Public Library reopened its four library locations with limited hours on June 8. Senior Library Manager Mandy Carrico spoke on the reopening capacity, stating “while we do not have a limited maximum occupancy (we struggled to find solutions on how long patrons can stay, how to police library time maximums in a large building, what to do with a forming line outside in high desert temperatures) we did decide to address closing the building and/or asking patrons to leave if the number of bodies prevented the rules of safety from being followed. This has not yet happened.”

However, Carrico says the library has implemented measures recommended by the CDC to ensure patrons and staff remain as safe as possible in the library space. All persons in the library are reminded to remain six feet apart, and must wear a mask covering the mouth and nose at all times unless medically exempt, under 6 years old, or to briefly take a sip of a drink. “The only other exception is that we allow patrons to eat in a designated area of the library,” says Carrico, “so patrons may take their masks off while eating, but must not leave the area until finished and their mask is back in place.”

Sanitary wipes are provided to patrons at all high touch areas. Patrons are encouraged to wipe off their computer stations, tables, chairs, and study areas before and after use. Additionally, all service desks have partitions between staff and public.

To enforce the safety measures, Carrico says “any patron not following the safety rules are first educated and reminded, and then asked to leave the facility if the infraction continues.”

This policy puts library staff working on-site in the position of educating & reminding patrons about the policies needed to protect them from contracting COVID-19 while at work.

Carrico told Book Riot that if a library staff member tests positive for COVID-19, employees that share any staff areas with the infected member are notified of the positive result. The public is not notified.

Full-time employees with Scottsdale Public Library are offered health benefits and insurance coverage. Part-time employees with a tenure that extends into previous health benefits and insurance coverage for their employment status have retained those. Part-time employees hired after those benefits no longer applied do not have health benefits or insurance coverage through the city. However, the city does cover the cost of COVID-19 testing for any city employee.

According to the city’s Job Descriptions Page, a part-time Library Page at Scottsdale Public Library makes a starting hourly wage of $11.84.

Staff members are permitted to work remotely when the schedule and duties allow for it, though Carrico states that not all positions are conducive to telecommuting.

“It’s been five months, and during that time we’ve had to shift to something more stable in order to operate. Since opening the buildings, we have encouraged library staff to redeploy to another position needed in the city that could offer a more secluded work environment or remote work options as those opportunities arise. We have also allowed employees to go unscheduled, but still remain employees of the city.”