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'Heartbreaking': Librarians sound public alarms about Multnomah County layoffs

Close to 80 librarian staff are waiting to hear about their futures.

MULTNOMAH COUNTY, Ore. — Close to 80 librarians and other full-time staff members could be laid off from their jobs with Multnomah County by the end of September, a looming likelihood that has several publicly criticizing library management.

“It's kind of heartbreaking actually and a lot of my peers are upset,” said Kyra Hahn, who said she’s been notified she’ll be laid off from her job at the Albina branch. She added she was the first Black librarian to be hired at that branch.

Library assistant Elleona Budd said, as far as they know, their job is safe.

That could change any day.

“It’s fairly anxiety-inducing,” Budd said. “The hardest part is seeing how it’s impacting my coworkers and what our perceived impact is on the community.”

The announcement of layoffs came months after COVID-19 forced Multnomah County to close its libraries.

Per their latest estimate, managers expect to let go of 79 full-time workers, while moving six more to part-time status.

Multnomah County Libraries employs roughly 580 people in total.

Unlike other publicly funded social services, the library system isn’t suffering from a lack of funding. Its revenue comes largely from property taxes, which are relatively stable.

Director Vailey Oehlke said, with libraries still closed and services hindered, managers can't justify keeping the standard number of people on their publicly funded payroll.

Oehlke has worked with Multnomah County libraries for 23 years.

“There are people who will be impacted by this, with whom I've worked for that 23 years,” she said. “And it is it, personally -- it is very hard.”

Oehlke says the library worked with the union representing staff, AFSCME Local 88, in negotiating the layoffs.

That process included, she said, calculating how libraries can eventually re-open with social distancing in mind and moving as many jobs and services as possible online.

Regarding the latter, employees argue more can be done.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and there are many ideas that have been sent in by staff since mid-March that we could be acting upon,” Budd said.

“It's not as simple as just having an idea one day and the next day and acting on it,” Oehlke said in response to those criticisms. “Oftentimes there are lots of things that need to be in place to make that happen. IT things and facilities, things and all of that stuff. So we actually, at the union's request, formed a task force that did a lot of that vetting of all of those suggestions.”

Other concerns Oehlke is well aware of are those surrounding services for and relied upon by people of color: things like providing culturally specific books, internet access to those without, and help with homework and resumes.

Oehlke says those programs will be protected.

Staff worry any pairing down of services will disproportionately impact Portland’s communities of color, many of whom rely on the library system for vital services.

“Folks that don't have that constant regular access to things are once again going to be disenfranchised,” Budd said. “And [they’re going to be] put in a spot where 'I don’t know where I can go to get computer lab help. I don't know where I can go to print out paperwork. I don't know where I can go to do these basic things.’”

Managers plan to have final decisions on layoffs made by September 30.

Oehlke said she’s working to keep the final number as low as possible.

The union sent a letter to its members over the weekend saying they did not negotiate with management regarding the cuts. 

"When we were notified, we asked for the formation of a task force to evaluate employees' ideas for maintaining services and to push out the implementation date of the layoffs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 30 so workers ideas could be thoughtfully considered and enacted ... Since we were notified of these layoffs, we have been in discussions with management for the purpose of trying to reduce the number of employees that could be left with no job at the end of this layoff and working through our layoff committee to make sure our contract is followed related to seniority and bumping," union members wrote in the letter.