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Chicago library employees protest Lightfoot’s decision to keep all 80 libraries open during pandemic

Library employees and their union say their health and the health of library patrons is being put in jeopardy; the mayor’s office argued libraries “play an important role as a safety net ... providing trusted and reliable information.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot (far right), First Lady Amy Eshleman (middle) and Library Commissioner Andrea Telli (second from the right), seen in 2019 at a branch library.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot (far right), Chicago first lady Amy Eshleman (middle) and Library Commissioner Andrea Telli (second from the right), visiting a branch library in 2019.
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chicago Public library employees are accusing Mayor Lori Lightfoot of putting their health and the health of library patrons in jeopardy by keeping all 80 public libraries open during the coronavirus pandemic.

Schools and dine-in restaurants are closed. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has limited crowd sizes in the state to under 50, impacting gyms, bowling alleys, private clubs and movie theaters. The Trump administration is urging Americans to avoid meeting in groups larger than ten people.

With employees working from home, suburban libraries closing and everyday life grinding to a halt, Chicago library employees and the union that represents them are accusing Lightfoot and her hand-picked Library Commissioner Andrea Telli of being “careless” by keeping Chicago Public Libraries open.

“Hundreds of people pass through library branches each day. There can be no social distancing as patrons need help on computers. Staff have to touch keyboards/mice and sit very close, assisting patrons,” a librarian, who asked to remain anonymous, wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.

“Books are contaminated. Children put toys in their mouths constantly. Cleaning staff work 1/2 day in most branches and surfaces may not be cleaned for up to 24 hours. All surfaces are not cleaned. Nothing is cleaned thoroughly.”

Patrons inside the Chicago Public Library branch in Chinatown.
Library workers are concerned about staying open when many other public gathering places have been closed. They argue it is impossible to serve patrons, like those at the Chinatown branch (shown), while also practicing the recommended “social distancing.”
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file photo

The librarian noted the “supplies” distributed to each branch to “help us de-contaminate” consisted of a single container of Clorox wipes, a small bottle of non-alcohol-based hand sanitizer and two boxes of tissues. That will “do nothing” to mitigate the risk, the librarian said.

“We need masks, rubber gloves, cleaning services cleaning all day, daily. We need permission to not sit close to patrons, take patron’s cards from their hands, handle patron’s keychain card fobs, etc.,” the librarian wrote.

“Libraries are NOT the first line of defense in a crisis like this. ... We are not on par with first responders or health professionals. The Mayor and Ms. Telli touted libraries as ‘gathering places’ while CPS is closed and parents are already posting on parenting websites saying to ‘drop off’ children at the library and park district during the CPS closure. We need … to show how irresponsible it is to keep libraries open. While we all want to serve the public and do all we can, we feel at risk and our concerns ignored.”

The mayor’s office said maintaining the health and wellness of city employees is “our top priority.” But its statement also argued that libraries “play an important role as a safety net in communities providing trusted and reliable information.”

Chicago Public libraries have “temporarily suspended all programs and events while continuing to provide basic services. We ask that patrons and staff who are sick stay home and utilize our extensive digital services, and those that do use the libraries, use additional precautionary measures during their visit,” the mayor’s office said.

Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, acknowledged the union representing roughly 900 library employees has carried the workers’ concerns to the mayor.

“With people naturally gathering at the libraries, we are concerned about the public health implications for library patrons, library employees and for the broader community. We are in discussions with the city about these very serious concerns,” Lindall wrote in an email.

The librarian who contacted the Sun-Times claimed that, during a meeting Monday with AFSCME Council 31 and Local 1215, a top mayoral aide insisted all locations would remain open “all days with no exceptions.” The Lightfoot administration was “unmoved by online petitions, [Facebook] bombings and phone calls,” the librarian said.

The librarian claimed employees at the Northtown branch walked out Monday to protest what they called “unsafe working conditions” and the Sulzer Regional Library “had to close due to understaffing.”

The online petition already has 4,375 signatures fueled by the Illinois Library Association’s recommendation that all libraries be closed.