After more than three months of working from home due to the coronavirus, Free Library of Philadelphia employees returned to their buildings this week to find that some of the cleaning supplies that were supposed to keep them safe had expired.
Some of the hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes had expired as far back as 2018, said employees who swapped back-to-work experiences via email.
City officials quickly apologized for the lapse Tuesday during a virtual town hall meeting with library staff and pledged to restock.
Roderick Washington, the city’s occupational safety administrator, said the expired supplies were in branches before the mid-March shutdown and were not replaced in a timely manner.
“However, measures are underway, today, yesterday and throughout the week, to supply branches with updated cleaning supplies,” he said. In addition to cleaning supplies, he said, the system’s stock of 50 face shields will grow next week when 200 more will be delivered, followed by 400 more by the end of July. Acrylic glass barriers also have been ordered and should arrive by late July or early August, he said.
Concerns about library safety come as a group of Black library employees has raised concerns that they are paid less than their white colleagues, are subjected to routine racism, and have been asked to return to work without a plan to keep them safe from the coronavirus.
In addition to focusing on employee safety, Tuesday’s meeting addressed workforce diversity. Library president Siobhan A. Reardon said that despite the shutdown-driven layoffs of more than 200 seasonal employees, most of whom were Black, “this is still a minority-majority organization” of full-time employees.
She said some of the laid-off employees could be rehired if funds become available. Reardon said she sent a letter to the Black employees who wrote an open letter to her last week complaining about pay inequity and workplace conditions, but they declined to meet with her. She is working with the library’s board of trustees to respond to the letter, she said.
Employees said their concern about dirty libraries predated the coronavirus, and now could cost staff their health and even their lives. Some wondered why library officials could not properly stock the system’s 54 branches with enough supplies during the 3½-month shutdown. Branches are not yet open to the public.
Michele Teague, a local area network administrator at the Parkway Central Library and a union shop steward, said she had heard concerns from at least a dozen people.
“The major complaint was the lack of PPE, which was supposed to be there when they walked through the door,” she said. “Some didn’t know where it was, or it wasn’t there, or it wasn’t enough.”
Alexis Ahiagbe, a volunteer services employee at the Parkway Central Library, said on Friday she emailed a letter detailing workplace concerns of Black employees to each member of the library’s governing board of directors and board of trustees. Just one member on the board of directors, Patrick Oates, replied, she said.
Ahiagbe, a four-year employee, Teague, and Early said library workers felt ignored by Reardon and even their own union.
The leaders of AFSCME Locals 2187 and 696, which represent library employees, did not respond to calls for comment.