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Libraries set to begin reopening in May, despite City Council resolution

Friday, April 2, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

Amid concerns about vaccination rates, City Council has pushed back the day Austin Public Library employees will return to their physical workplaces. The change is not expected to impact a plan to begin reopening public libraries on May 10.

“I really appreciate the way the public library has maintained that balance of providing a level of service while prioritizing the health and safety of its employees. … The abiding concern remains, which is that public library staff would be asked to report back to work on Monday, April 5, at a time where likely many of them have not received the vaccine,” said Council Member Kathie Tovo, who sponsored the resolution to delay employees’ return.

In a unanimous vote Thursday, Council changed the date of return for library employees from Monday to “no sooner than May 1.” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly was absent for the vote.

Austin Public Library plans to open 11 branches for express in-person service on May 10, with all other branches to open June 28. The branches opening in May are Central, Carver, Hampton Branch at Oak Hill, Manchaca, Milwood, North Village, Old Quarry, Ruiz, Spicewood Springs, University Hills, Windsor Park, and Yarborough. (Though University Hills is temporarily closed due to damage from Winter Storm Uri.)

Library Director Roosevelt Weeks told Council that the earlier return to work would have allowed employees a period of acclimation to new safety procedures and not working from home. Out of 450 staff members, 225 are already working in library facilities and 125 employees never stopped. Weeks said that division is “a big morale issue.”

“Our essential employees didn’t stop working in March,” he said. “And one of their biggest concerns is, why must we do this? Why must we do this? Then, when in June we opened up the curbside services, those that provide curbside service kept saying, why must we do this? Why must we be out there doing this?”

Despite the change in timeline, Weeks said libraries would stay on track to begin reopening in May, citing a “desperate need” for access to computers.

“There is a digital divide. And we’re trying to do as much as we can to make sure that people can have access,” he said.

A memo from Austin Human Resources Director Joya Hayes and interim Assistant City Manager Shannon Jones to City Council notes:

Austin Public Library (APL) … helps to provide equitable technology access for residents across the city, particularly users who are low-income, unhoused, and persons of color. Pre-pandemic, over 500,000 people used APL computers and another 500,000 used APL’s Wi-Fi access. The limitations of service has greatly impeded the ability for many of APL’s customers to register for vaccinations and obtain other critical information on available resources and support programs. It is crucial that APL provides computer access to our residents so they can take advantage of vaccination sign-ups and other social services offered by the city, state, and federal governments.

Council’s primary concern about the library reopening plan was the unknown vaccination rate for library employees. While the city can neither mandate vaccines nor ask employees about their status, Hayes gave a quick rundown of the current situation at the city. That discussion is expected to continue Tuesday during the city’s weekly Covid briefing.

Hayes said that, though the city had purchased 6,000 vaccines in the fall “hoping to stay ahead,” they had only received 300 so far. Until they receive the remainder of those vaccines, the city is collaborating with Austin Public Health to address the needs of employees, prioritizing those who deal directly with the public. To date, Hayes said, more than 3,400 city employees have been vaccinated.

“We are trying to prioritize our front-facing employees with the shots that we have available now. Austin Public Library is one of several departments where we are trying to earmark those employees and get them registered for vaccinations,” she said. “If there is an Austin Public Library staff member who is 18 years or older, they can register now. We allotted far more shots than we have currently (have) people signed up for.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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