The Hennepin County Library's plan to ratchet up hours of operation this fall to pre-pandemic levels is drawing fire from library workers, who say there's insufficient staff to handle work right now.

The new hours, yet to be announced, are intended to meet expected demand from students returning to school and patrons seeking more evening hours as they resume normal routines, according to an internal staff memo.

But many library workers — including the leaders of the two unions that represent them — worry they won't be able to shoulder the additional responsibilities that come with more hours. Library hours may be returning to pre-pandemic levels, they say, but staffing levels haven't been.

"The staffing levels are really tight," said Ali Fuhrman, president of AFSCME Local 2822, which represents library support staff. "The workload is unmanageable as it is. We are barely able to cover the front desks."

Several dozen library workers rallied Monday outside the East Lake Library in south Minneapolis, calling on the Hennepin County Board to fully fund and staff the libraries.

"To a person we are all exhausted," said Nancy Greer, who works at the Eden Prairie Library. "They want to open more hours and we don't have staff. ... They want us to do more with less and we've nothing left to give them."

According to a library representative, the new hours will go into effect in late October.

"We are preparing to offer a schedule of hours that better meets the need of our residents, a schedule they enjoyed before the arrival of COVID-19," Library Director Chad Helton said in a written statement to the Star Tribune.

Six AFSCME locals covering more than 5,000 county employees — including library workers — are bargaining with Hennepin County over contracts due to expire at the end of the year.

They're emphasizing several issues, including cost-of-living wage increases, hazard pay for front-line workers and more time off because of the pandemic.

Dissatisfaction among library staffers increased with the disclosure this summer that Helton, who was hired in 2020, is largely running the library system from Los Angeles where he resides.

Helton has said that he will return to the Twin Cities as needed, and that he can be just as effective working remotely from the West Coast.

Many library staffers disagree, saying he should be living in Hennepin County and regularly visiting libraries rather than conducting meetings over video.

Helton defended the plan to expand library hours. "Our schedules are highly dependent on staffing, and I am confident we have adequate staffing to support the hours we'll be resuming," he said.

The library unions point to a decision by the Hennepin County Board in July 2020, when services were limited due to the pandemic, to cut the library budget by $2.4 million and reduce the number of full-time positions by 66. Those positions were vacant at the time and no one was laid off.

In the past 18 months the number of workers who provide direct services in the county's libraries has shrunk to 412 full-time equivalents, a 9% decline.

"As of right now we are already experiencing a reduction in service levels and many of us are unable to provide virtual programs or one-on-one computer assistance," said Angel Gardner-Kocher, president of AFSCME Local 2864, which represents librarians.

Library spokesman Joshua Yetman said administrators are anticipating rehiring some part-time substitutes who were discontinued during the pandemic.

Hope and skepticism

A visit to a half-dozen Hennepin County Library branches over the past several weeks found workers stressing that staffing was tight. At the Ridgedale Library, 62 carts were filled with books to be shelved. The backlog has meant that requests for books from patrons can sometimes take up to 10 days, said Teresa Barnhill, a library specialist.

At several branches, library staffers estimated that as many as one-third of the books on the shelves were misfiled, which they said reflects the lack of time they have to straighten them out. Barnhill said that more than 900 items at the Ridgedale Library were on missing lists, in large part because they were shelved improperly.

Following Monday's rally, Helton issued a statement saying the library system will be staffed sufficiently. He attributed roughly 30 vacant library service positions to normal attrition and transfers, and said he anticipated those jobs would be filled with new hires.

"Turnover doesn't occur in an equal distribution across the system," Helton said, "and the library will need support from staff at all levels to ensure each region and library is equipped to offer a robust schedule of hours. This will require a combination of hiring and reallocation of staff."

Union leaders said they were skeptical. The 66 jobs cut by the County Board last year are in addition to the 30 vacant positions, Fuhrman said. "The county can try to use semantics to hide staffing cuts, but the fact is we are down 96 positions from pre-pandemic levels," she said.

Helton promised that the library staff will be "well-positioned and prepared for the change. … After 18 months of limited hours and limited services, I hope our residents will respond with enthusiasm for the return of Homework Help and pre-pandemic schedules."

Several patrons at the East Lake Library this week sounded enthusiastic about the plans for expanded hours, but also expressed concern for staffers.

"I support them," said Ellen Gair, 68, a probation officer. "I know how difficult a job can be if they don't have adequate staff."

Jerry Lane, 77, retired director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, was on his way into the library on Thursday.

"I learned early in my career to listen carefully to the line staff delivering services about how best that be done," he said. "Do the hiring first and expand the hours second."

"If they do more hours, they should have more staff," said Becky Johnson, 58, on her way in to find a book. "These guys have been here throughout the pandemic. They're front-line workers. We'd have gone crazy without them."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224

Twitter: @randyfurst