Salt Lake Community College’s library services has remained partially open throughout the pandemic’s entirety — one of the school’s few departments to do so — to provide services for students and community members who would not otherwise have access to computers, the internet and printing.
But like many businesses and other college departments, SLCC’s library services felt the impact of COVID-19 on its workforce at the start of the pandemic. In March of 2020, three of the four campus libraries — Jordan, Miller and South City — were closed until June 2020, after which they opened with shortened hours until August 2021.
But problems have persisted.
For the past five weeks, Angela Beatie, assistant director of library public services, starts every day asking herself, “How many people are going to be out sick today?”
In addition to supervising three full-time employees, Beatie oversees 25 part-time employees who are integral to the functioning of SLCC’s four campus libraries, with another 11 part-time employees working under different supervision.
Since December, a higher amount of library staff has tested positive for COVID-19, forcing them to be out for three to 12 days at a time. The increase in COVID-19 cases and exposures, Beatie said, has led to one-on-one discussions about what to do in these situations because of the need to have employees work in-person.
Beatie added that Utah’s testing shortage has made this even more difficult.
“We’re running a bare-bones crew here, so if somebody’s been exposed but has no symptoms and can’t get a test, [I must ask myself] ‘Can I let this person work?’” Beatie said.
But in addition to temporarily sidelining existing employees, the pandemic has exacerbated underlying issues, according to Jon Glenn, director of library services, who said they were already having a hard time attracting and retaining people in certain positions before the pandemic, such as those positions which provide coverage until midnight on weekdays and Saturdays.
These hard-to-fill positions are largely comprised of part-time positions, which are less stable, according to Beatie, who has previously held library positions at Washburn University, Emporia State University and Wichita State University. Upon her arrival at SLCC, she was surprised by the number of part-time employees working at the college’s libraries.
“We rely a lot on part-time employees, and we’re having trouble getting them and holding on to them,” she said.
“A lot of the positions that I hire for don’t require previous work experience or an associate degree,” Beatie said. “So, we’re competing with a very broad market as opposed to more specialized positions that you need a lot of education or experience for.”
As the pandemic continued and more people began to feel the economic effects of the pandemic, Glenn said employees began to leave.
“Then, as was occurring elsewhere, people started leaving for better paying jobs, or just because it had become too stressful to work on the frontlines with a pandemic raging and the state taking away the ability to require protocols to keep staff safe,” he said.
Julie Meldrum, who works at the Miller Campus library, said pay is likely a large factor discouraging applications, adding that potential employees have more options than they did in the past — many of which pay more than $12 per hour, which is the current college-wide pay for entry-level, part-time positions.
“Unless we raise the average pay at SLCC, we will have an increasingly difficult time hiring and retaining quality employees,” Meldrum said.
Last July, SLCC increased its college-wide starting pay for entry-level part-time positions from $10.25 per hour to $12 per hour, but Zack Allred, who has been assistant director for library academic services for the past seven years, said pay across the board is not competitive enough at SLCC compared to other businesses and colleges.
“I’ve had both part-time and full-time job candidates turn down job offers because the pay is so low, and I have very little control in how much I can pay,” Allred said, adding that he has experienced a 120% turnover rate in his team’s part-time employees over the past two years.
“Even if I can get someone to take the position, they usually don’t stay very long, and they all say it is the pay which is why they leave,” Allred said. “They enjoy the work, they like the college environment, but they can’t survive on the pay.”
Beatie said she has learned to be upfront about the pay in her interviews since it is the most common reason why applicants do not take the job, adding that she has lost a lot of time with the hiring process, which can take several weeks, if not longer — only for applicants to reject her job offer.
Because of staffing shortages, the Markosian Library at the Taylorville Redwood Campus began to shut its doors last fall at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, cutting time available to students. Early closures have continued into the spring semester.
According to Beatie, in the last six months, they have continuously struggled to fill between five and eight part-time positions, or 13-22% of the libraries’ total 36 part-time positions. Although library services have tried multiple ways to problem-solve internally, Beatie said understaffing “stretches us all.”
“I feel like silly putty, where I’m just being stretched and stretched, and there’s going to be a point where things break,” she said.
Beatie said she would like the college to consider a shift towards hiring more full-time employees, but she also acknowledged the complexity of the issue, noting limitations in place due to their staff budget.
“I feel like we would have a lot more stability, we would be more competitive in that regard if we could focus more on that,” she said. “I would like to continue to have conversations across the college about our historical reliance on part-time employees, because any potential change needs to be supported by our leaders.”
Although Beatie said she feels like they’re currently “climbing out of the fog a bit,” she placed the likelihood of having to close libraries on Saturdays, or a whole library branch, at around 20% this spring semester, saying that closure decisions depend on unpredictable factors such as staff illness.
Library services adapting to the pandemic
Following the pandemic, library services placed more effort into their website, which students can use to access online resources, including e-books, academic publications, videos, research databases and digital archives.
Beatie said the unique thing about libraries is that in addition to being a resource for books, they are a “combination of the physical study space, the access to computers, and the Wi-Fi,” adding that they primarily serve SLCC students and faculty but also offer their resources to other members of the community.
Resources that the library started providing during the pandemic include renting out the 169 laptops available to the libraries, as well as webcams and hotspots, which Beatie said are extremely popular.
Beatie also said a lot of what the library does cannot be done remotely, which is more of a possibility for other offices on campus.
“I haven’t figured out how to run a service desk remotely,” she said.
Beatie said she would love to hire more students to work in their libraries because a lot of their part-time positions would be ideal for students since they are flexible, provide an opportunity to work on campus, and allow for study during downtime.
“It’s maybe not the work experience that’s going to directly apply to their future endeavors, but it’s a really good opportunity to use some customer service skills, interact with people, and just kind of learn how a workplace functions,” she said.
Library positions can be found on the SLCC employment page.