Community Rallies Behind Woburn Librarians Facing Layoffs

Christopher Huffaker

WOBURN, MA — Woburn residents have rallied behind a group of Woburn Public Library employees who are facing layoffs, ahead of negotiations between the union and the city scheduled to take place Wednesday.

Seventeen employees are facing layoffs, with the city citing the need to save their salaries amid the coronavirus pandemic. But staff and their supporters point to the City Council vote June 24 to pass the mayor's proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget — which does not include any cuts to the library budget.

"We believe they're trying to get rid of our union," Woburn Library Staff Association steward Tracy Kennedy Breeden said. "Every library in this community that did any type of layoff, they did it at the beginning of the coronavirus. We've been getting paid straight through, with no communication from our director."

Mayor Scott Galvin has not yet responded to requests for comment, but told concerned members of City Council at their budget meeting that library layoffs are "definitely on the table."

Layoffs were initially scheduled for July 1, but were pushed to July 17. As an alternative, the city proposed a 60-day furlough for the employees affected. The city and the union have yet to meet directly.

The city's most recent proposal, presented to the union June 25, suggests saving the salaries "until such time as there is work available at the library."

But there is plenty to do at the library, Breeden and other staff members said; they are just not allowed to do it. Deliveries have been done by volunteers, while virtual programming that would usually be done by staff have been outsourced to paid performers, Breeden, a circulation assistant, said. Staff have suggested or asked to perform these tasks, and others, and have been told not to.

Instead, they have sat at home since the library closed in mid-March, after a single week when they were able to do some programming.

Youth services librarian Dorrie Karlin has been with the library for 2.5 years. She argued that the Woburn staff are particularly suited to working in weird circumstances, like the pandemic, because of their experience over the last five years, with their temporary location and then moving to a new, much larger library.

"They've had to be so adaptable," she said.

But they haven't been allowed to adapt this time, Karlin and Breeden said.

"I've offered to do virtual story-time multiple times," Karlin said. "We'd really enjoyed that first week of doing that. I really miss that."

Breeden said she offered to pick up some books for a home-bound patron who typically makes use of the home-bound delivery program she is in charge of. She was told it was handled, but the patron told her two months later that the delivery took weeks.

It was in early June when the union rep was notified that "because we were home without productive duties and because of the budget impact, there were going to be layoffs," Karlin said.

Seventeen of the twenty-five staff members' jobs were on the line, she explained.

The potential layoffs are coming when many libraries around the state are ramping up their operations. Burlington put in place a curbside pickup program on June 2.

When staff members began to spread the word about their potential layoffs, the community support was "amazing," Karlin said. A Facebook group named Support Woburn Librarians was created to coordinate support and share information.

Residents sent emails and letters to city hall, asking Galvin not to go forward with the layoffs. A petition to stop the layoffs gathered over 3,000 signatures. Lawn signs were made and distributed and a group protested outside the City Council budget meeting in support of the staff.

The last week also saw the Friends of the Woburn Public Library announcing its own dissolution, with the board members feeling they no longer had the support of the library's administration.

"The Friends have become invisible to the library administration, Trustees and Foundation," the board wrote. "Without the ability to fundraise, we cannot sponsor the museum passes or programs like Woburn Reads or the Teddy Bear Picnic. In short, we are unable to fulfill our mission."

Karlin and Breeden both said they just want to get back to doing what they do.

"It's devastating," Karlin said of potentially getting laid off, though she's hopeful she could get another job. "I have only been here two and a half years and I care so strongly about the community."

"The library would not be able to succeed without us," Breeden said. "We are the cogs in the machine that keep everything running."

The union and the city are scheduled to meet Wednesday morning.

Christopher Huffaker can be reached at 412-265-8353 or chris.huffaker@patch.com.

This article originally appeared on the Woburn Patch