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In long Camden County library contract dispute, hint of a breakthrough

More than 100 of the system’s librarians and librarian support staff have been working under a contract that expired in December 2015.

Amber Pallante recalls when a woman came into the South County Regional Branch of the Camden County Library System dressed up in finery, as if for a wedding. She was seeking internet access so she could watch a family wedding abroad through Skype, as she was unable to attend.

Pallante, the principal librarians' assistant at the branch in Atco, called it one of her most gratifying days at work.

At the Nilsa I. Cruz-Perez Downtown Branch in Camden, manager Julie Tozer tells of recently helping a patron who had health issues and complicated medical bills that prevented timely submission of a tax-filing extension.

Both women work full-time and call their work rewarding. Both, however, lament that they, along with more than 100 of the system's librarians and support staff,  have been working under a contract that expired in December 2015.

Librarians' assistants in the county, who are represented by Communications Workers of America Local 1014, earn the lowest starting salaries in the state, president Karl Walko said. The union is pushing for a $15 hourly starting rate for all of its members. Many assistants now make only around $9 per hour, which Walko called an "unlivable" wage. The Camden County group is 76 percent female, Walko said.

Tuesday evening, it appeared a breakthrough was near on this issue. A county source familiar with the negotiations said officials were likely to concede the assistants' wage. Walko could not be reached again for comment and it was not clear if the entire long-running contract dispute was close to being resolved.

Librarians also are asking for higher wages. Like the assistants, a union spokesman said, they are the lowest paid in the state. The librarians, almost all of whom are women, are represented by AFSCME Local 1454. They start at $23 per hour, said spokesman Kevin Hanes, while being required to have master's degrees.

Tozer, 35, of Collingswood, has been Camden branch manager since January 2013. The tax assistance her branch provided is typical of libraries like hers, she said.

"A library provides resources for a community, more than people really know," said Pallante, 52, of Winslow. "It isn't just books on a shelf."

Joyce Valenza, assistant teaching professor of library and information science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, said she was not familiar with the Camden County contract dispute but stressed that librarians play an integral role in helping communities thrive. Their work goes beyond finding books for people, she said.

Many people incorrectly believe, she said, that libraries are dying. Enrollment in Rutgers' library science program has doubled in the last five years, she noted.

Pallante left a career in law to raise her children two decades ago, and returned to work as a librarian's assistant 15 years ago, at first part-time. She quickly described falling in love with the work, finding that libraries are resources for community members in need, especially those of lower income and those who become unemployed.

She worries that the lack of  a new contract is a sign of county officials' disregard for community libraries.

"I'm lucky because I have a spouse and we're not struggling to make ends meet," she said. "But I worry that county freeholders and the powers of Camden County don't understand what libraries do for communities, particularly when the economy is in trouble."

Tozer left the Ocean County Library System in 2013 to come to Camden County's downtown branch. She has a master's in library science from Queens College in New York.

"I always saw myself in a city setting eventually," she said, adding that she particularly enjoys opportunities to teach English as a second language courses as well as  technology courses.

Both Tozer and Pallante said lagging pay seemed to be discouraging applicants for librarian jobs. An opening at one of the county's branches, they said, has had to be posted multiple times.

Library system workers rallied at the Voorhees branch on April 12 and 18 to demand a new contract. Another demonstration is planned for Thursday at the county's eight branches.

Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said the county does not negotiate contracts through the media, but added:

"We're working on coming to a resolution and finish final contract negotiations that pay library staff comparably to neighboring municipalities and counties."