NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans Public Library employees have been among the loudest voices of concern about exposure to the coronavirus. Now, they’re worried they’re being forced to choose between their jobs and their health.
Pressure from those librarians and other public library staff and patrons has already forced Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration to change plans over the weekend.
New City Librarian Gabriel Morley sent an email to all library employees on Saturday saying that Mayor LaToya Cantrell wanted to keep the libraries open, to let children – who were forced to stay home from school through April 16 – do schoolwork on the libraries’ public computers.
Morley also indicated the libraries could be used for other public purposes, most likely to distribute school lunches and possibly even to set up temporary treatment centers if the number of coronavirus cases exceeds hospitals’ capacity.
“We would love to distribute meals to children, who doesn't want to distribute meals to children?!” said one library employee, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect her job for speaking out.
She said the city isn't giving the staff the disinfecting supplies, personal protective equipment like gloves or masks and the training it needs.
“We just need to ensure our library staff are clean and safe and healthy so that we can then help our public,” she said. For example, she noted that they have a regular book-lending program with Lambeth House, a focal point of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The city issued a memo last week promising to provide personal protective equipment to all city employees who interact with the public.
A city spokesperson did not respond to questions from WWL-TV seeking comment, but did tell the station's partners at The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate that it was dealing with a shortage of personal protective equipment and had to prioritize public safety employees.
The city also told the newspaper that library employees would not be expected to sanitize their own work areas, and janitors are already doing that.
"The janitorial teams have been working to do heightened cleanings at each branch," the city spokesman said. "These teams are also participating in the specialized deep cleaning training offered by the city."
Over the weekend, more than 800 library patrons signed an online petition calling on City Hall to close the libraries completely.
Under pressure, the city's changed its library plan Sunday. Library communications director John Marc Sharpe sent an email to staff saying branches would be closed to the public Monday, but the employees still had to come to work.
The city said 35 of 220 library employees -- 16 percent of the staff -- called in sick Monday.
Morley told employees in an email they cannot take "civil leave," which is special time off reserved for government closures.
“And some of us don't have any sick leave left. And those who don't want to be forced to use their sick leave are just going in,” she said.
That’s scary for at-risk employees, including another who spoke with WWL-TV on condition of anonymity, saying that she’s recovering from surgery and recent cancer treatments. She said she was placed on a list of “at-risk” employees over the weekend, something that made her uncomfortable, but at least gave her hope she could get paid leave to stay home.
“My manager … told me that I had permission to stay at home and that I would receive civil leave,” that employee said.
But her relief was short-lived, she said.
“Today I woke up to an e-mail that said I wasn't going to get civil leave after all, and that I'd have to use sick or personal leave if I wanted to say home. The only other option is to be off work without getting paid. I'm extremely alarmed and upset. I feel like I've been handed a death sentence: Go to work and contract a potentially fatal virus or stay at home and don't get paid.”
And then there were the emails from managers suggesting librarians should keep a lower profile. One manager sent an email Monday telling branch staff to "hide" and "keep the lights low" at work so the public wouldn't see them.
Another manager emailed to tell staff, "The mayor is not happy with the library right now. Not happy with all the people who refused to come into work, the pushback on listing who is medically vulnerable, pushing to close.
But employees who spoke with WWL-TV believe the only thing protecting them is their pushback against the administration.
“The only reason the library shut down in the first place and the only movement forward has been completely due to the voices of employees within the system begging to be treated with the respect we deserve,” one of them said.