A significant number — more than 40% — of Multnomah County librarians, clerks and employees who work with the public say they feel unsafe on the job, according to an audit of the Multnomah County Library published Thursday.
An unspecified number of employees also said they don’t trust executive leaders to take their concerns — including incidents of violence — seriously, according to the audit.
Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson acknowledged “the real and serious concerns” aired by library employees in the report.
“The library and its county partners are taking action,” Vega Pederson wrote in response to the audit.
The Multnomah County Auditor’s Office started looking into the library system after previous surveys of employees revealed “high levels of dissatisfaction” with Multnomah County Library’s work environment. Auditors interviewed more than 60 employees and managers, visited five neighborhood libraries and conducted an anonymous survey sent to the library’s more than 550 employees.
The audit reported that 43% of those surveyed disagreed with the statement: “I feel safe at work,” according to Multnomah County management auditor, Mical Yohannes. Another 24% said they were neutral and another 26% said they agreed with the statement, Yohannes said.
Some employees said issues began in the summer of 2020, when Multnomah County Library officials announced they would lay off employees due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders did not go through with the layoffs after library employees and their union pushed back, but the surprise announcement created an “us versus them” mentality within the agency’s workforce that lingers today, some employees told auditors.
Safety and security issues also worsened after libraries reopened to the public in June 2021. As the number of people experiencing homelessness and behavioral health crises increased, so did the severity and frequency of related problems at local libraries, the audit report states.
Between January and December 2022, patrons violated library rules more than 2,000 times, according to an online record system that documents employee complaints. More than half of those incidents were reported at the Central Library in downtown Portland. Midland Library had the next-highest level of incidents, at 247 reports. In the same period, overall visits to county libraries fell by about half, compared with pre-pandemic levels, as patrons increasingly turned to digital materials.
Employees reported being sexually harassed and threatened with knives, and they have responded to drug use and overdoses at higher rates since June 2021. Employees also said Portland police rarely responded in time when they called 911.
About half of employees said having onsite security personnel made them feel safer at work. Some county libraries have employees dubbed “safety liaisons” to deescalate conflicts, and the library has contracted with security guards.
In addition to security and safety issues, some employees pointed to Multnomah County Library’s diversity, equity and inclusion priorities and said they were “more talk than action.”
Some employees questioned the organization’s decision to close multiple neighborhood libraries that serve the county’s Black community for construction starting in December 2022. Multiple employees also reported frustration after a Juneteenth celebration was canceled at the last minute because there weren’t enough employees to work both in neighborhood libraries and at the event, creating distrust with the county’s Black and African American community, according to the report.
Three former and current Multnomah County library employees sued the organization in May for allegedly discriminating against Black staff members. Alicia Byrd, Cathy Parham and Victor Allen said the library created a hostile work environment and retaliated against them for claiming racial discrimination. They are seeking about $942,000 for emotional harm and attorney’s fees, according to a complaint filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
In September, County Attorney Jenny Madkour asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing that the library’s actions were based on legitimate nondiscriminatory factors. The case is ongoing, however.
According to the audit, county libraries are also providing fewer community programs and events than before the pandemic, including weekly story times, computer trainings and cultural events. There were 2,398 virtual and in-person events in 2022 compared with 17,002 programs or events in 2014, the report states.
Employees with cultural or language skills also said they were expected to help plan and participate in community outreach activities that their peers without the same skills weren’t required to do, making some feel overworked and undervalued.
The auditor’s office recommended the library improve security and better support employees after disturbing incidents, increase staffing, address equity concerns and improve internal communications.
Vega Pederson said the library system will implement, or has implemented, most of the auditor’s 10 recommendations. She requested clarification on three of them, asking auditors to explain the difference between “serious” and “critical” incidents, and for more guidance on how auditors want the library system to increase programs, events and outreach.
Construction of a flagship library in Gresham and renovations at some neighborhood branches elsewhere are expected to be completed by fall 2025, leaving library leaders about two years to “proactively plan for future library operations and address employees’ concerns,” the report states.
— Catalina Gaitán, firstname.lastname@example.org, @catalinagaitan_
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly combined answer categories to erroneously describe 75% of those surveyed feeling unsafe. The correct figure is 43%.