In the latest round of an apparent never-ending battle between the Tacoma Public Library and its employees, the library is attempting to lay-off five page employees.
Just last December, the library had just settled a very contentious round of contract negotiations with its two unions, the Library Employees, and the Library Pages locals.
One of the most hotly contested parts of those sometimes very bitter negotiations, was a request from the Pages union to consolidate part-time page positions. At that time, pages, the lowest paid of all library workers, were limited to working less than 18 hours a week, and were ineligible for benefits. Under the union’s proposal, when a page position became vacant, it would not be re-filled. Instead, other employees would receive increased hours – where they would be able to work up to 40 hours a week and receive benefits.
According the union, the current controversy concerns a possible budget shortfall in the funding of the new full-time page positions.
“We understood the reductions were to be done by attrition over a two year period,” said Dian Shearer, Chairman of the Pages Union local. “That was the consensus of everyone in the negotiations.”
“They told us, they told the city council that they had enough money in the budget to fund the positions and the increased benefits,” said Carolyn Cohen, past Chair of the Library Employees union. “Now they say we misunderstood, and that they don’t have the money, and so they’re going to lay-off some people to make-up the difference.” According to Cohen the disputed amount is around $50,000.
“Obviously, we’re in favor of combining the page positions,” said Dian Shearer, “But they should do it by attrition like they agreed, so the people aren’t adversely impacted.”
The union contends that patrons are being affected, as well. “Public services are suffering already,” said Cohen.
Historically, the library has always used around 1,700 Full-Time Equivalent hours of pages a week, split between about 102 positions, said Cohen. Currently, the library is using only about 1,400 hours a week – a reduction of about 300 hours from the past. As a result, Cohen says it now takes as long as three weeks for returned books to be reshelved. New books and videos may take up to three months to be placed on the shelves. And higher-paid library employees are being called to fill-in and perform essential duties previously done by pages.
“There are a lot of people really concerned because we’re providing important services to the public,” said Shearer, “And we’re concerned because we want the real services and not just a lot of hype. If the reductions go through, it will impact these services. And that’s truly unfortunate.”
“The budget figures the library has produced just don’t add up,” said Cohen. “From studying the data they gave us, it looks like they have the money to fund the benefits, without laying anyone off.” She went on to note, “In the past three years or so, they’ve spent over $200,000 with their anti-union labor-lawyers. Now they want to reduce services to the public because the budget’s supposedly $50,000 short. Is that justice?”
Library spokesman, David Domkoski, disagrees with the union’s position. “There’s nothing in the contract about attrition,” he said. He went on to state that the library didn’t have a budget shortfall. He said the lay-offs were necessary to fund the extra cost of creating the new 40 hour a week page positions, because there hadn’t been enough attrition. He also flatly disagreed that patron services have suffered.
“The library is optimistic that by May 3, we’ll have a mutually agreeable solution to these problems,” said Domkoski. He went on to add, “The library would be happy to reopen negotiations on the issue of the new forty hour a week positions. It’s up to the union to decide what they want to do.”