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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

Omicron wreaks havoc on Queens’ Library workers


As if coming from nowhere, the third wave of the coronavirus arrived.

Beginning in mid-November and continuing into the new year, the Omicron variant of COVID-19 struck New York City. At its height in December and January, the city saw conditions somewhat reminiscent of the 2020 lockdown. Streets were quiet, and restaurants and stores were nearly empty while New Yorkers lined up throughout the five boroughs at COVID-19 testing centers and vaccination sites.

The Omicron wave of COVID-19, though not as deadly as the initial wave and the Delta variant over the summer, spread quickly throughout the city, wreaking havoc on an already wounded city, and impacted city services, particularly those that directly serve the public, such as the city’s three public library systems.

In Queens alone, staffing shortages due to Omicron forced the Queens Public Library system to close 11 branches on Dec. 27.
“This variant has been really disruptive. So many of our members have been sick or exposed, and we’ve had to shut down branches,” said Queens Library Guild Local 1321 President John Hyslop.

Hyslop, who also serves as DC 37’s Secretary, described Omicron’s impact on his members particularly in the first few weeks of the outbreak.

“It’s been very stressful, with a lot of anxiety and disruption. Since mid-December, it’s been chaotic, and testing has been brutal for everybody,” Hyslop said. “Like everyone else, we’ve been going out, standing in lines to be tested, sometimes for hours.”

COVID crisis communication between management and library workers has been imperfect at best. With 80% to 90% of the Queens Library staff now working in-person, Hyslop said Omicron’s impact is making life more difficult now than in 2020 when more staff were remote.

In March 2020 when COVID first appeared, the Queens Library Administration developed a written operations plan. As the virus progressed and the vaccine emerged, the Administration did not adjust its rules and did not maintain written guidance, all of which has led to a chaotic approach to handling this last surge.

“This latest variant created a lot of questions about what to do about branch openings, when to get tested, who gets tested, why branches remained open. It was chaotic,” Hyslop said. “Margaret Gibson, [the Local’s Executive Vice President] and I repeatedly told the administration that we need written guidance and the Library staff making decisions on how to operate the library during this pandemic need to come out and explain these decisions to us. Sometimes the decisions are very nuanced, and members are angry about their decisions. Every public service staff member asks, ‘Why do I have to come in? If we’ve been exposed, how are we safe?’ They need someone to come out and explain why.’” Hyslop said.

The uneven application of rules definitely had an impact on at least one branch.

“We had a serious situation in the last week of December where management tried to keep a branch in South Jamaica open with two clerical staffers, which violated a settlement agreement. So Leo Morris, the DC 37 rep, our Executive Vice President Margaret Gibson, and I immediately filed a grievance and won,” Hyslop said.

As soon as the grievance was filed, Queens Library management closed branches outright or to the public when they did not have enough staff. However, Hyslop did give credit to the Queens Library administration during the crisis.

“We want a safe, consistent work environment where our members know that we are as protected as possible and can still help our Queens communities. I give credit to our administration. In March 2020, they shut the system down, started buying PPE, created written service models that kept staff safe, instituted and enforced social distancing guidelines, were very generous with COVID-related time off, and other things. However, this latest surge caught the Administration unprepared. Our members need new rules of operation and communication,” he said.

To that end, the Union and Administration held a labor-management meeting Feb. 1, so the Union could stress to the Administration the need to create a plan for future emergencies and to share their ideas on how the Library staff can best continue providing excellent services and keep staff safe with improved communication.