Black workers want Free Library to address racism, safety before reopening

Free Library of Philadelphia

Free Library of Philadelphia (Miguel Martinez/Billy Penn)

Black workers at the Free Library of Philadelphia have penned an open letter about racism in the workplace.

The letter by the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which was posted online but not delivered directly to management, says Black staff are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 exposure and routinely experience racial discrimination and microaggressions on the job.

All the branches of the Free Library system are currently closed due to the pandemic. There is no date scheduled for reopening the buildings to patrons yet, however the institute is planning to offer curbside pick-up and drop-off of library materials in early July.

When the libraries reopen, the Black workers want changes.

“Our pre-COVID work was on the frontlines, serving Philadelphians in a manner that requires face-to-face activity that makes us most vulnerable to infection,” reads the letter. “We cannot return to business as usual and must find different and better ways to serve the public while keeping our staff and patrons safe.”

Kalela Williams, the library’s director of neighborhood enrichment, said the group is made up of library workers from across many departments.

“Black folks at the library are more likely to occupy frontline staff positions,” said Williams. “As the library is putting together reopening plans that are not baked enough — it’s not passing the toothpick test — that’s putting more frontline workers at risk. Those front line workers are disproportionately people of color.”

Williams also said Black workers whose jobs require them to move between branches and go into neighborhoods fear for their personal safety, as armed, white vigilante mobs have been reported in certain neighborhoods.

“Our lives matter to us, but do they matter to the library?” said Williams. “Is that just a statement, or is that real?”

The letter makes six demands of Free Library management, including a commitment to the safety of Black employees, a formal investigation in to the concerns of Black staff about physically returning to work, a reopening plan that takes into account elevated COVID-19 infection rates among African Americans, accommodations for staff whose work exposes them to racial violence, and giving Black staff the same opportunities to work from home as white staff enjoy.

The group also would like the Free Library’s back-of-house staff — the specialty librarians, executives and managers — to share the duties of working directly with the public.

In a statement, the Free Library said it has seen the letter of grievances and acknowledges that its Black staff members are statistically more vulnerable to dying from the coronavirus.

“While we have put into place safety measures developed with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health as our staff begins to return to our physical locations next week, we have reached out to the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library in order to work together on issues of equity and matters that impact their health and safety,” reads the statement.

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