Six progressive aldermen echo call from union to move up vaccinations for Chicago Public Library staff

Alice Yin, Chicago Tribune
·3 min read

A group of aldermen and union officials on Thursday demanded the city of Chicago move public library workers up the vaccine line, arguing they should be considered front line essential workers.

The advocates in a news release said those city employees must be instated in the current phase 1b of vaccine rollout amid reports of positive coronavirus cases among staffers and resultant branch closures.

“The lack of a coordinated vaccination distribution plan is hurting essential workers like our librarians, Black and Brown communities hardest hit by COVID-19, and seniors who can’t get the vaccine in their communities. We need to do better,” Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, said.

A Chicago Department of Public Health spokesman deferred comment to CPL, who said the library system is “very proud” of its staff, but phase 1b rules are set by city guidelines. CPL has had 53 positive cases since the start of the pandemic, but the spokesman noted that is 5% of total library staff and lower than the overall community infection rate.

“We have worked closely with library staff and with the Chicago Department of Public Health to develop policies and protocols to keep them safe during the pandemic,” spokesman Patrick Molloy wrote in a statement. “Our protocols include changes to work practices, protective equipment, changes to the workspace, capacity limitations, and more. Importantly, these efforts have worked.”

Sigcho-Lopez was joined by aldermen Daniel LaSpata, 1st, Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, 35th, Matt Martin, 47th, and Maria Hadden, 49th, who all asked for the vaccine policy to be changed. The six are all members of City Councils’ progressive caucus that has largely been aligned with union interests.

The group also demanded the city scale back its public libraries to curbside services only until employees can be vaccinated. But Molloy wrote in his statement that such a restriction would not ensure “equitable service” for all Chicagoans.

“The limited curbside approach would disproportionately impact low-income Chicagoans and people of color,” Molloy wrote. “Because of the library’s role as community anchors and the critical services we provide, we consider our system essential to Chicagoans. Furthermore, at a time when we’re attempting to reduce close contact between and among staff, their co-workers, and patrons, curbside services would increase such contact.”

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Phase 1b began on Jan. 25, opening up vaccine appointments to front line essential workers, residents 65 or older and some city government leaders and elected officials. Currently, library workers in Chicago remain in phase 1c, which is set to begin at the end of March and includes remaining essential workers and those 16 or older with existing health conditions.

But given that the city has kept some public libraries open since June, some staffers and aldermen say that timeline is not soon enough. They pointed to a survey by the Illinois Library Association that finds at least five other regions in the state have designated library staffers in phase 1b.

About 900 Chicago Public Library employees are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.

Corina Pedraza, Chicago Public Library associate, said her colleagues are living in fear while providing essential services to library patrons.

“Considering library staff essential workers in name only is completely demoralizing. Library workers are frightened they will get COVID-19 and infect their loved ones. We are left wondering when, if ever, we will be treated with dignity by the city we’ve risked our health to serve during the pandemic,” Pedraza said.

Adrienne Alexander, intergovernmental affairs director of the local chapter of AFSCME, criticized the city for keeping libraries open and subjecting employees to difficult environments while not allowing them vaccines yet.

“Library employees cope under constant stress and work with children unaccompanied by parents, homeless persons seeking shelter, and some individuals who simply refuse to abide by COVID protection policies,” Alexander said. “Despite these conditions, the City has continued to insist that libraries must remain open to the public because they are so essential to the well-being of our communities.”

ayin@chicagotribune.com