Originally published on Journal-Topics on Jan. 24, 2022.

Niles-Maine District Library trustees imposed a hiring freeze in May and have seen a steady attrition of library employees since then. The library’s reduced staffing has also caught the attention of local state senators, state representatives, and a county commissioner, who called on trustees to end the freeze.

State Sen. Ram Villivalam (D-8th) read a letter during public comment at the library’s Wednesday, Jan. 18 board of trustees meeting, also signed by State Sen. Robert Martwick (D-10th), State Rep. Marty Moylan (D-55th), State Rep. Lindsey LaPointe (D-19th), Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13th) and Niles Township Democratic Committeeperson Josina Morita.

While reading the letter, Villivalam was flanked by more than a dozen library employees and supporters clad in green AFSCME (American Federation of State County Municipal Employees) Council 31 union t-shirts, calling on the library board to lift the hiring freeze. Also at the library board meeting was State Sen. Laura Murphy (D-28th).

The Illinois Labor Relations Board served notice to the library on June 7, 2021, that library employees were forming a union after the hiring freeze was enacted and deep budget cuts were proposed by the newly elected library trustees. The formation of a union local through AFSCME continues.

“We feel strongly that our Niles-Maine District Library is a gem in our community, and as such, we want to protect library resources so it may thrive and continue to provide the valuable services to our community’s residents.

“For that to happen, the board has a responsibility to ensure staffing and programming to remain at the levels our constituents expect and deserve,” Villivalam read from the letter to library trustees.

“Already, with the hiring freeze that’s in place and the attrition that has occurred, there is not sufficient staff to cover public-facing desks at all times. This is especially pronounced at the children’s desk where demand is high, with technology classes that require significant planning, and maintenance, which performs so many critical functions that are often invisible until staffing is such that they cannot all be done.”

He continued, “Unfortunately, some programming has already been eliminated due to understaffing. Please lift the hiring freeze currently in place so that everyone who comes through the doors of our community’s library continues to have a pleasant experience, in a clean and safe environment.”

AFSCME Council 31 spokesman Anders Lindall said he was informed by staff that the library’s current budget budgets for 68.27 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions (calculating hours as if all employees were full time). The current staffing level is 58.75 FTE.

He said among frontline library employees who would be represented by the union, the library is down three full-time positions and 10-part time positions from what is funded in the budget, which does not include management positions such as three full-time management positions which are also vacant including the post of former Assistant Library Director and Business Manager Greg Pritz.

During the meeting, library Trustee Becky Keane said two employees working in the business office, who have taken on extra duties since Pritz left at the end of December, should be given extra pay for that work retroactively. Trustee Joe Makula said he agreed before library board President Carolyn Drblik said the subject should be discussed in closed executive session, as it is a personnel matter.

An updated communications policy, instituted last spring, demands questions of library staff be sent in the form of a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act in writing. The Journal filed such an order for public documents under FOIA after Wednesday’s meeting. The library has five business days to comply and may ask for an extension of another five days if needed.

Since the hiring freeze was implemented there have been several failing votes to approve hiring in specific areas, all of which failed except one, to replace Dave Dabrowski, who was head of maintenance and security. That job is the only posted open position on the library’s website.

“For just one example of the consequences, there are now 13 hours a week when no maintenance staff is on duty,” Lindall said.

During the meeting, Drblik reiterated her calls to be given more detailed information about staff job duties and responsibilities amid reports programs are being canceled because of staffing issues.

“You have it,” Library Director Cyndi Rademacher shot back, as she has in past discussions on staffing and the hiring freeze referring to information on staff positions she already provided to Drblik.

On library operations, Rademacher told Drblik, “That’s my job.”

On the status of forming the union, Lindall said, “The members have elected their bargaining committee and are meeting to develop their proposals. We’re ready to begin negotiations and we’ve communicated that to the employer (the library).” He said the election of library employees to serve as officers in the library would happen after the first contract is in place.