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Black employees at the Free Library are throwing the book at management over racism, safety, and pay equity

Workers calling themselves the Concerned Black Employees of the Free Library of Philadelphia issued an open letter accusing the city's library system of paying them less, limiting their upward mobility, and lacking a plan to keep them safe from coronavirus.

Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, inside the new main reading room at the Free Library on the Parkway last year.
Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, inside the new main reading room at the Free Library on the Parkway last year.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Black employees of the Free Library of Philadelphia have sent an open letter to management complaining that they are paid less than their white colleagues, are subjected to routine racism, and are being asked to return to work Monday without a plan to keep them safe from the coronavirus.

“We have determined that racial discrimination and disregard for black safety, success, prosperity, and life at the Free Library will no longer be tolerated,” wrote the employees, who signed the letter as the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Mieka Moody, a library supervisor who has been with the system since 1999, said library director Siobhan Reardon included a pro-Black Lives Matter message in a recent newsletter emailed to all library members. Hopefully, Reardon will be as supportive of her Black employees, Moody said.

“In the times that we’re living in, a lot of these sound bites are ‘Black Lives Matter.' But a lot of Black people are not experiencing that or feeling that we matter,” Moody said. “It feels like we don’t matter, that we can be paid less and do most of the work. So, I hope through this that our demands are met.”

The letter was distributed Thursday. In a statement Friday acknowledging it, the library said, “We are committed to protecting our Black colleagues, who are part of a community whose members are disproportionately dying from COVID-19. While we have put into place safety measures developed with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health as our staff begins to return to our physical locations next week, we have reached out to the Concerned Black Workers of the Free Library in order to work together on issues of equity and matters that impact their health and safety.”

Although Free Library staff are to report to work Monday, branches will remain closed.

Grievances from Black employees and those of other races who work for the city’s library system are not new. In a 2018 online survey of employees, 86% of respondents said they had experienced and observed bias in the workplace. And almost 83% said they had experienced racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or another microaggression.

The Free Library system has 54 branches. Last year, it had just over 800 employees, 460 of them librarians. In the workforce, 391 employees were Black; 351 white; 27 Asian; 24 Hispanic or Latino; and six biracial.

But since the coronavirus shut down the Free Library system on March 17, 207 library employees have been laid off, the largest cut in any city department. Many of them were Black employees who had worked in lower paying jobs, according to the employees who wrote the letter.

They said 103 of the laid-off employees were Black; 61 were white; 15 were Asian; and nine were Hispanic or Latino. The remainder were of other races.

The letter said Black library staffers are largely relegated to nonprofessional positions, including custodians, municipal guards, and library assistants. As a result they earn $7,533 less than the median salary in the library system, while white employees earn $12,012 more than the median.

“We just don’t get paid enough,” said Natalie Walker, a digital resource specialist at a North Philadelphia branch. “I’ve been working there 15 years, and I consider myself to be a very important front-line worker, and there’s no room for advancement, and I barely bring home enough money to take care of myself.”

Walker said she enjoys teaching computer classes and helping patrons find what they’re looking for, but does not like how she is treated.

“Basically, I fall at the bottom of the totem pole,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t even get a lunch break because so many people come in. I get chosen a lot to come up with all these different ideas, but I don’t get credit for them.”

Before being required to return to work Monday, the Black employees said, they want a commitment to protecting their lives; a formal and transparent investigation of their concerns about workplace safety; accommodations for Black staff whose library work makes them susceptible to racial violence; and the same opportunities to work from home as white staff enjoy.

They also said those who work in management, executive, and specialty positions should be redeployed to cover shortages due to the pandemic and the layoff of seasonal employees, most of whom are Black.

“We cannot return to business as usual and must find different and better ways to serve the public while keeping our staff and patrons safe,” the Black employees wrote.