With COVID-19, Library Staff Should Not Be Required to Report to Work

Romeo Rosales

Staff Writer

Full time Librarian, father and husband, Romeo Rosales, Jr. holds an MLS from Texas Woman's University in Denton, TX, a B.A. in History from The University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg, TX, and an A.A. in History from South Texas College in McAllen, TX. Romeo was born and raised in Pharr, TX, a border town that is part of the historic Rio Grande Valley. He is a contributor for Public Libraries Online, the companion website to the bi-monthly print publication "Public Libraries," the official magazine of the Public Library Association. He is also a published author and when he is not writing, he is spending all of his time with his wife Claudia and his son Azariah. Twitter: @Rrsls10

We should all be aware of what COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) is, what the symptoms are, and what to do if we feel we have been exposed to the virus. But in case you are unfamiliar with what COVID-19 is, the World Health Organization explains that “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a new strain that was discovered in 2019 and has not been previously identified in humans. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.” If you feel that you have any of the above-mentioned symptoms, please consult the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for next steps.

The spread of COVID-19 was so severe and sudden that countries and local governments have done what they can to limit large gatherings. Flights have been grounded, entire countries have been quarantined, gatherings of more than 50 people have been recommended for cancellation by the CDC, gyms have been shut down, schools have been closed, etc. For the most part, governments and municipalities have been doing what they can to combat the spread of this pestilence. And many libraries across the United States have followed suit. Many have closed their doors to the public to further contain the spread of COVID-19. This is huge because libraries are safe havens for everybody, but to ensure that the virus is contained as much as possible, many libraries have rightfully taken direction from their local governments (whether City or County) and have closed their doors for at least two weeks. Some have closed their doors for longer. Los Angeles Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, Austin Public Library and San Antonio Public Library, some of the largest public libraries in the country, have closed all of their library branches. But what good is a quarantine and closure of public libraries if library staff still must report to work?

This has been the case for many public libraries who have closed their doors to the public but have still asked their staff to report to work. What many local governments and library administration teams have failed to acknowledge are the many reasons why library staff should not have to report to work. I will break down several of those reasons here:

Many Library Employees Are Parents

Schools across the country have also been closing their doors or extending spring break to ensure that they do what they can to combat the spread of COVID-19. So, with so many students being told to stay at home, what can be done about childcare? Keeping daycare centers open seems counterproductive when trying to combat the spread of germs.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Children in daycare centers are more likely to catch an infection than kids who do not attend day care. Children who go to day care are often around other kids who may be sick.” The same goes for schools. So, keeping children at home seems like the safest bet right now. But this leaves parents who work and have no sick/personal leave available in an awkward position. They may have to go without pay if they choose to stay home but they may also be exposing themselves to the virus by reporting to work to be around their colleagues. Just because one person practices good hygiene does not mean that everybody else does. Libraries need to keep this in mind. They should do what they can do protect their staff.

Libraries Employ the Elderly and Those With Serious Health Conditions

I have worked with library employees of all ages and with those who suffer from serious health conditions. Many were immunocompromised, meaning they were much more likely to become sick. Having them report to work during this quarantine period puts them in serious danger. They must be allowed to stay home to ensure they remain healthy.

According to U.S. News & World Report, “Normal aging of the immune system and underlying medical conditions make people 60 and up more vulnerable to severe respiratory illness from COVID-19. ‘When they get an infection, any respiratory infection – but particularly this new coronavirus, probably because they haven’t seen this strain before – they’re going to have more severe disease, as they would with influenza,’ says Hoffmann, who is also a clinical instructor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. ‘That’s what we’re seeing so far.'”

The Workload Can Wait

Library professionals know that there is always work to be done when libraries are closed, but completing this work comes at what cost? Asking staff to come in to work on collection development, reports, statistics, shelving, or any other library duties during this time is irresponsible. Being available to our communities is vital but many libraries are having staff show up to answer phones or to be available via email. This can all be done remotely and having up-to-date information available on library websites and on social media platforms should suffice. We can still keep our patrons informed without having staff come in to work. The workload can wait and the health of library staff is more important. @oodja on Twitter said it best:

If History Has Shown Us Anything…

History has shown us time and time again that pandemics such as this one should not be taken lightly. I keep hearing over and over that governments are making a big deal out of this and that there is nothing to be worried about. Wrong! The situation is dire and we need to do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The World Health Organization has an amazing COVID-19 situation map on their website that shows just how widespread this virus is. 147 countries, areas or territories have confirmed cases of COVID-19, around 6,610 people have died from it (at least those that have been reported), and there are around 168,019 confirmed cases worldwide. Those numbers may not seem significant in a world whose population numbers in the billions, but the spread of this virus happened so quickly that those numbers can/will jump significantly unless we do what we can to prevent the spread. Librarians may not have the authority to close libraries down themselves, but library directors who have the ears of city and county commissions and library boards do have a major say in the matter. They just need to be willing to fight hard for their staff.

Normally, public libraries would be the place for all those who have been displaced and for all the marginalized to go. But today is not normal. As hard as it may be for many to acknowledge that, libraries must close and do what they can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within their communities. But closing their doors should apply to library staff as well. Asking staff to return to work during this difficult time sends a message to them that library administration and local government does not really have their best interest in mind. It implies that work and the completion of it outweighs everything else.

Library administrations, library boards, and local governments must value library employees. If they do not, then you can consider that an immediate red flag. Library Directors must let their staff know that they see them and acknowledge them as more than just worker bees. Forbes notes that “employees who feel valued and appreciated by their leaders are infinitely more likely to go above and beyond for the company and hold themselves accountable for their part of a project. Most importantly, they will be happier in their roles.”

Libraries, go up to bat for your employees and show them that their health is much more important than any workload. Ensure that they get to stay home with their families and further prevent the spread of nasty germs. Do the right thing.


Editor’s Note: Removed a sentence urging those with symptoms to visit the doctor or ER. Please consult the CDC’s next steps beforehand.