I Lost My Library Job Because I Refused to Work With the Public During a Pandemic
The library where I’ve worked for 21 years just cut me loose. Which is probably a good thing. Because from what my fellow librarians tell me, everything that made the job a joy — the interactions with patrons, kibbitzing with your co-workers, and most important, the sense of being the heart of the community, where everyone was welcome and most people behaved well — is gone.
Plexiglass and pickups
These days, working at a public library means cowering behind plexiglass barriers (if you’re lucky!) telling people that they can’t do what they’re used to coming to the library to enjoy. No story times! No sitting in a comfy chair reading the newspaper! (All the furniture in the public spaces has been removed.) No browsing! No lingering! No hanging around to chat.
Now? Grab your books and go! And for the love of Pete, keep that mask pulled up over your nose.
Still, things happen that make it all worth while.The patron you’ve helped with their job hunt for weeks finally lands a job! A family who is new to the area comes in to get library cards. You are thanked, repeatedly, for re-opening.
And, of course, the cute little kids in their cute little masks, sitting six feet apart from each other on the Junior Room floor, happily reading.
But then? It’s time to phone the police so they can remove the patron who is screaming and swearing because they were told that they had to wear a mask. Properly. Not around their dang chin.
Library work has always been challenging. It’s even more challenging now. Still, if I were younger, I’d be there in the thick of it, with my mask on.
But, I’m 65, which puts me in a high risk category for COVID. As much as I love my job, I’m just not willing to put my life on the line for it.
My library closed when Pennsylvania was in the red zone. Part time staff, myself included, were furloughed. When we re-opened, there were plentiful safety precautions. Even so, when my bosses learned that I remained concerned about the risk, they extended my furlough throughout the summer.
But now fall is here and the library is both busy and understaffed — and it’s all hands on deck.
I was recently called back from furlough and told that I was needed at the circulation desk to work with the public.
I haven’t been anywhere near the public for months! I’m one of those hardcore risk-averse people who have made social distancing into a Superpower. I only leave the house for a daily (socially distanced, outdoor) visit with my sister. And dental emergencies.
Why? Because months into this pandemic, there’s still no cure for COVID. No vaccinations. And no reliable testing program in place.
Right, wrong and in between
When I was called back to work, I offered to work from home, or in the building when it was closed. Anything to avoid working with the public.
“You’re a circulation assistant,” I was told. “Working with the public is your job.”
Hard to argue with that. And yet? There was plenty of behind-the-scenes work I could have done safely until COVID was under control. If they’d only been willing to let me.
“That’s just wrong,” friends responded when they heard that I’d lost my job. “They should have kept you on.”
Perhaps. But the one thing living through this pandemic has taught me is that everyone’s perception of risk, and comfort level with risk, is different.
I’m the only person on my library’s staff who felt that the risk of returning to work was unacceptable. Everyone else is back on the job. Does that mean that I’m right and all of my co-workers are wrong? Not necessarily.
All it means is that working with the public isn’t a risk I’m willing to take.
My bosses turned down my request to work behind the scenes. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. They have to take into account both the needs of an entire library system and the community it serves. I was just one tiny cog in that system.
My goal for 2020 is to live through it. To not get COVID. To stay off the ventilator. I plan to meet that goal, even if it means the job I love is kaput.
I know how lucky I am. I can manage financially. And I can get on Medicare. So many library workers all over this country are at risk, suffering in their jobs, terrified for their safety, unable to afford to leave.
I plan to use the extra time being retired has given me to advocate for their needs. (#Protect library workers.) And? To help get out the vote, so we can get somebody into the White House who can finally get COVID under control.
And when that happens? I hope to return to the library as a volunteer. Because I may have lost my library job, but I’ll always be a library worker at heart.
(This essay first appeared on the Broad Street Review and is republished here with permission. Roz Warren writes for everyone from the Funny Times to the New York Times, and is the author of Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor, and Just Another Day At Your Local Public Library. You can reach her at roSwarren@gmail.com)