Most Multnomah County library staff feel unsafe at work, audit finds

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
Dec. 7, 2023 1 p.m.
Patrons enter the Central Library in downtown Portland, in this undated photo provided by the Multnomah County Library.

Patrons enter the Central Library in downtown Portland, in this undated photo provided by the Multnomah County Library.

Courtesy of Multnomah County Library via Flickr

Overdoses. Stabbings. Sexual harassment. Hate speech. For employees at Multnomah County libraries, workplace concerns go beyond late fees and damaged books.

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An audit of the county’s library system published Thursday found that nearly 75% of surveyed library staff who work directly with the public don’t feel safe at their job. The audit, which reviewed the past two fiscal years, also identified areas in which the library system may be violating Oregon workplace safety rules.

The report shows how, by working in one of the few public spaces where visitors aren’t expected to spend money, library staff have become de facto first responders to the county’s dual behavioral health and housing crises.

“We are acting as therapists and social workers often in this role,” wrote one library staffer in an anonymous survey that helped inform the audit. “We are fatigued and not supported.”

The audit comes amid a period of transition for the county’s library system. Major building renovations, funded by a 2020 bond issued by the county, have temporarily closed seven libraries across the county, forcing staff and services to consolidate. These construction projects, which include building a new Gresham library, are expected to last until 2026.

Free water bottles and community resources stand at the entrance to the Belmont Library in Portland on Aug. 14, 2023.

Free water bottles and community resources stand at the entrance to the Belmont Library in Portland on Aug. 14, 2023.

Caden Perry / OPB

The audit examines the years directly following library closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a period of time where library staff saw an uptick in safety issues. That includes an instance when an agitated man punched two staffers at the Midland branch in East Portland, and another when a person wielding two knives hid overnight in the Central Library, evading security guards. Library staff told auditors that the “severity and frequency” of these types of events have increased since reopening in June 2021.

“They described an increase in incidents involving weapons, drug use, and people experiencing behavioral health crises,” the audit reads.

Caroline Zavitkovski is an audit director at Multnomah County who co-authored the report. Through 74 staff interviews and 421 surveys, she got a sense of how unexpectedly dangerous library work can be.

“It’s pretty dramatic,” she said,” It stuck with me that they have faced some really challenging situations.”

Inadequate security coverage for libraries

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According to the report, staff have experienced inconsistent support and communication from library managers during and following these types of events. And most library staff polled said they haven’t received sufficient safety and security training for their role. Asked what would make them feel more safe at work, the majority of staff polled said they’d like more security guards at each library branch.

The library relies on both contracted security guards and county staff hired to ensure patrons are following library policies. Branches with more security issues, like the Central Library and Midland Library, usually have at least one of those security employees on site. But it’s not always a given, according to Zavitkovski. ”The libraries that tend to have the most incidents… they don’t always have coverage, for example, on evenings or weekends,” she said. “And then there’s also some branches, some locations that don’t have any security at all.”

Security concerns were central to the latest contract negotiations between Multnomah County and library staff represented by AFSCME Local 88. That 2022 contract allowed employees to add security duties to their position, which require them to respond to “patron incidents that disrupt library operations” if a hired security guard isn’t available. Those employees are paid an extra 10% when doing that added work.

Related: Temporary Multnomah County library open at UO’s Northeast Portland campus

Despite this and other changes during the audit period — including adding new safety training and improving security flaws in library buildings — auditors believe the county is still failing to address staff concerns.

For example, auditors found that library management has fallen short on tracking security issues. That’s because the county relies on an outdated, time-consuming reporting system that includes few details about each incident. “That affects their ability to make data-driven decisions by looking at things across different areas, looking for trends,” Zavitkovski said.

They also urged the county to immediately comply with state Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules. According to the report, auditors found that libraries weren’t holding monthly safety committee meetings, which are required under state labor laws. Libraries finally began holding these meetings in October. The audit also recommended library management establish a policy to ensure better communication with staff after security threats, create a plan to address workplace violence, and update its reporting system. The report also instructs the library to produce a staffing plan to ensure that all library branches are fully staffed and supported when construction projects have ended.

Libraries as a refuge for people in crisis

In response to the audit, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson points to areas in which the county has already improved library security. She said the county is on track to purchase a new reporting system in 2024, and that the latest budget increased the library’s overall security expenses by 70% from 2019. She added that some of the challenges faced by library staff are felt by most people working public service jobs.

“Myriad factors contribute to this, including the housing crisis and systemic issues of inadequate behavioral health and substance use resources,” Vega Pederson wrote. “These conditions affect public libraries all over, particularly ones in urban settings with similar community needs.”

Related: Multnomah County’s Central Library will close for up to nine months

As the county works to bolster library safety, more people living in a state of crisis may turn to them for refuge. In June, the city of Portland adopted a ban on public camping between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Asked where people without housing should rest during the daytime, Mayor Ted Wheeler has suggested they visit county libraries.

The camping ban is currently on hold as a lawsuit against its constitutionality plays out in court.

The audit also comes as libraries across the region have become a political battleground for social protests. In June, violent threats forced Tigard Library to cancel a “Drag Queen Storytime” event, and just last month, Portland’s Hollywood Library shuttered after hearing opposition to an event hosted by a women’s organization accused of being transphobic.

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