Library service hampered by staff vacancies


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A persistent staff shortage has forced some city libraries to cut hours and delay programming over the past year, just as the pandemic sparked additional disruptions.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/05/2022 (321 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A persistent staff shortage has forced some city libraries to cut hours and delay programming over the past year, just as the pandemic sparked additional disruptions.

Eighty-two library positions, or 28 per cent, were vacant as of April 25, the City of Winnipeg confirms. That vacancy rate was 10 per cent on April 20, 2020.

The latest numbers mark little change from the 29 per cent vacancy rate that sparked concerns about potential service reductions in July 2021.

Some of those fears have since become reality.

While libraries have not been forced to close, some branch hours have been reduced, said Karin Borland, manager of library services.

“Hours have been impacted, certainly. Ability to bring back in-person programming is (also) somewhat impacted, although it’s happening,” said Borland.

City library branches offered a combined total of 48,450 hours of service in 2019 (prior to the pandemic) but only 23,290 in 2020 and 32,884 in 2021. While the number of hours was also affected by pandemic closures, Borland said staff levels were a significant factor.

There were no closures due to COVID-19 in 2022, when winter library hours totalled 798 per week, compared to 969 pre-pandemic.

Borland said the city has been recruiting staff to address the shortage, including the recent addition of 30 “shelvers.” A community crisis worker is being added, while recruitment is underway for four new branch librarians.

Borland blames part of the staffing challenge on increased retirements.

“There’s just a heck of a lot of retirements. We have a lot of people who have 30, 35, 40 years of service and it’s all coming to the fore now… if people are close on the calendar (to their planned retirement date), I would think the pandemic would have some influence,” she said.

In addition, libraries were subjected to citywide hiring freezes in 2017 and 2020, as well as two rounds of department-specific layoffs in 2020, which affected the ability to retain and hire staff, Borland noted.

City spokesperson Kalen Qually said the libraries department expects to restore pre-pandemic hours in phases, with key changes set for May 23 and June 20.

On May 23, several branches that had Wednesday hours before the pandemic are set to resume them, including the Fort Garry, Henderson, St. Vital, St. James-Assiniboia, Sir William Stephenson, and West Kildonan Libraries.

On June 20, branches that were open on Monday evenings pre-pandemic (all branches except Harvey Smith and Sir William Stephenson) and Wednesday evenings pre-pandemic (Millennium, St. Boniface, Harvey Smith and Sir William Stephenson) will reopen at those times.

“The plan is staged because… we’re working on filling these vacancies, so we’re building out capacity to be open more hours,” said Borland.

Some programs have experienced long delays in reopening after pandemic closures due to the lack of staff. Borland said that includes the Millennium Library ideaMILL, which reopened Feb. 23, 2022 after closing in late October 2020 as staff filled vacancies at other branches.

A Millennium Library patron said she’s not sure if the shortage affected services over the past year.

“So many reductions have been COVID-related or presented as COVID-related that it’s hard to (tell),” said Mona Neufeld.

Neufeld hopes library programs offered on Zoom will return to in-person formats soon, as the hiring continues.

“(The virtual option) doesn’t meet the needs for some people,” she said.

Neufeld stressed libraries offer a critical service that must be a priority.

“The library was a lifesaver for us when COVID first started… with just having kids suddenly home from school,” she said.

Robert Ogden, who also uses city libraries often, expects the city may need to consider additional benefits to attract workers.

“It’s a worker’s market right now. There are more workers that have more power now after COVID because employers are desperate for people,” said Ogden.

A union leader who represents municipal library staff said the vacancies have created a stressful working environment, as employees frequently move between branches to fill gaps in the system.

“It’s stressful on the staff to be moved around, to be relocated,” said Gord Delbridge, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.

Delbridge said he recently met with the city’s community services director to discuss the staff shortage. He’s urging the city to increase starting salaries.

“They are some of the lowest-paid members within the public service… With the rate of inflation now, it’s impacting our members like we’ve never seen before,” said Delbridge.

He noted some entry-level, part-time library positions pay $11.95 an hour.

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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