‘Breaking point’: Philly Free Library workers declare ‘no confidence’ in leadership

Free Library of Philadelphia

Free Library of Philadelphia (Miguel Martinez/Billy Penn)

Updated 2:38 p.m. on July 15

While the Free Library of Philadelphia remains closed to patrons, Monday, June 29, marked the first day back on site for many of its 733 employees. Almost as soon as the day started, messages about workplace safety started flying across a group email list used by some unionized workers.

“Expired Clorox wipes (10/2019). Soon-to-expire hand sanitizer,” wrote one worker from a South Philly branch.

“Only one container of wipes delivered, that is definitely NOT enough to continuously disinfect five work stations throughout the day/week…. No soap,”  wrote another worker at a branch in the Northwest part of the city.

“Came back and walked into a hot building, ants crawling on the wall,” wrote a worker at a branch in the far Northeast. “A bag of cheap cloth masks (face diapers) – too small, and no other supplies. What the heck am I supposed to do?

Those coronavirus safety concerns, along with concerns about racism and the misallocation of resources, topped a petition released by unionized workers announcing a “vote of no confidence” in the Free Library’s President and Director Siobhan Reardon, and her executive team. The petition calls for the Free Library’s Board of Trustees to force Reardon to step down, and for the union to be consulted in the search for the next president.

“We are alarmed by the utter lack of written safety protocols or communicated best practices from our administration during the Covid-19 pandemic and the re-opening of our libraries and offices,” it reads.

The petition — which had collected 1,288 signatures, including 198 from people who identified as library workers, as of June 30 — comes just days after Black library workers released an open letter about racism in the Free Library system.

In a virtual town hall on June 30, library management said they were working to address coronavirus safety issues for employees back on site, and Reardon said she will ask the Board of Trustees’ Diversity & Inclusion Committee to host a town hall on concerns about racism and equity in the near future.

Reardon also said no employee who signed Monday’s “no confidence” letter will face retribution: “I would assume you would think I am a bigger person than that.”

In a letter on July 14, Reardon addressed Black employees at the Free Library, saying that the institution is “committed to being an anti-racist environment, one free of discrimination, bias and microaggressions and where our Black employees and other employees of color know they belong.”

“We began this journey years ago, but we have not always gotten it right, and I recognize there is much work to be done,” Reardon wrote.

The Free Library president said she recognizes that Black and brown employees are disproportionately impacted by the virus and that they plan to keep the library system closed to the public until it’s clear that people can safely return.

Reardon also said they’re working to address the systemic issues within the organization, including a search for a Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, as well as a review of workplace culture and policies by DiverseForce.

“We will continue listening and learning, and we are committed to designing strategies to ensure the Free Library of Philadelphia creates a workplace culture that mirrors the society we wish to create,” Reardon wrote.

‘We have had enough’

The employee’s open letter highlights concerns ranging from a lack of PPE, to an inept human resources department, to anger that library management allowed the National Guard to shelter in the Wadsworth Library for a few days in early June.

Sunita Balija returned to work as a librarian at a South Philadelphia branch on June 29, but left after a few hours because the air-conditioning system was broken. She said she was worried there weren’t enough face masks provided for her and her colleagues to share space safely.

“At this point, I don’t feel like it’s really safe for the staff I work with to be here for more than a couple of days,” Balija said. “We are not just workers in the system, we are also members of the community.”

Library employee Peter Santa Maria said the pandemic has been a “breaking point” for many workers.

“The pandemic, if anything, has brought everything up to the very top. We have had enough,” Santa Maria said. “We can’t function as an institution the way our administration is trying to … They are not doing their jobs.”

It’s not the first time Reardon has faced calls to step down. Last year, City Councilmember Cindy Bass called out the library president for failing to form a diversity committee and giving a pass to a senior white manager accused of discrimination.

Reardon also has her supporters: She won the “Librarian of the Year” award in 2015, from the Library Journal, a national trade publication.

An emailed statement from the Chair of the Free Library’s Board of Trustees did not specifically address criticism of Reardon.

“We are taking the concerns shared by Free Library team members into consideration,” said Pamela Dembe. “We are working diligently via additional meetings and communications with staff to further hear, understand, and examine concerns and how they can be addressed to ensure a safe and welcoming workplace for the future.”

‘We cannot return to business as usual’

The Free Library’s Black workers announced their own demands for change in an open letter published in mid-June, stating that Black workers routinely face racism in the workplace, are paid less than their white colleagues and are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection because they are more likely to be frontline staff.

“Now is the time for the Free Library to be anti-racist,” the letter reads. “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.”

The union organizers behind Monday’s open letter said they stood in solidarity with their Black colleagues.

Making concerns about racism and inequity part of a union campaign could make it more difficult for management to retaliate, said Adam Feldman, a library coordinator at the Parkway Central Library and union shop steward.

“[Black] voices should be lifted up and should be at the center of this debate, but it’s important that the whole city understand that there is widespread concern about the leadership of the Free Library,” Feldman said.

In an interview on June 29, members of the Free Library’s Black workers group said they supported the two-pronged approach.

Multiple workers said they doubted leadership would enact systemic changes without sustained pressure, noting that employees have voiced the same concerns about racism and inequity in the workplace for years.

“It has been our experience that it falls on deaf ears,” said Alexis Ahiagbe, a Black library worker.

Ahiagbe sent the Black workers’ open letter to every library board member and trustee on June 19. As of June 29, she had only received one response — from Black board member Patrick Oates.

“That just goes to show you that this is not just a Siobhan [Reardon] problem or an executive problem,” she said. “This goes all the way to the top.”

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