When you find a book on the shelves at any of Tacoma’s eight libraries, chances are you can thank a library page for putting it back in the right spot.
Some of the most experienced of those workers could be gone next year if the City Council passes a proposed 2015-16 budget.
The library director, faced with a mandate from City Manager T.C. Broadnax to make a $400,000 cut without slashing services, has proposed eliminating senior page jobs.
Gone would be eight full-time employees who have nearly 200 years of combined experience and at $13 an hour are among the lowest paid city workers. Remaining to restock shelves would be more than two dozen part-time pages who work no more than 17 hours a week each and don’t qualify for city benefits.
“This is very frustrating,” said Lillian Hunter, president of the library’s board of trustees. “To think it’s not going to affect services in some way is misguided thinking. We need those monies restored to the library budget.”
The senior page positions are the only potential layoffs to emerge so far from an otherwise good-news city budget. City officials are considering adding 110 more workers than were in the budget adopted two years ago.
While reshelving can be done with part-time staff, some say the city has a duty to the senior pages.
The youngest of the senior pages is in her late 40s. The oldest is pushing 70. It’s unlikely they will find another job that also provides full benefits, said Julio Quan, a member of the library’s board of trustees.
Quan said the city has a moral obligation to continue to employ people who have worked for the city for so long.
“It takes time to do it,” he said of the senior pages’ job. “It takes a lot of your will to keep doing the same job of shelving books. ... If you are in your 50s, where are you going to get a job? They specialize in shelving books.”
The city library budget sits somewhat apart from most of the rest of city government. When the City Council approves the budget, it allocates a dollar amount to the libraries, and the library board decides how it’s spent.
Library Director Susan Odencrantz, who has presided over “several bienniums of layoffs,” said initially that Broadnax asked her what a $1.3 million cut in the library’s budget would look like. In that scenario, the public would have seen reduced hours or closed library branches, fewer youth librarians or cuts to reference staff or the Northwest Room.
Broadnax later gave the library the lower $400,000 target to meet.
“Anything we did was going to impact our staff. It’s a matter of where,” she said. “At this point what the board is trying to do is not make any more service cuts that the public can see.”
Broadnax said avoiding staff cuts by cutting services instead would be the easy route.
“We are not an employment agency,” Broadnax said. “... I’ve very seldom heard any community member talk to me about who does the work. It’s about how long the library will be open and the condition of the library.”
Even with this cut, the public won’t see the impact, Odencrantz said.
“We replace them with half-time people,” she said. “It has to be done anyway. Somebody’s got to shelve those books.”
Dylan Carlson, an official in the union that represents the eight workers, said the pages are the “grunt workers of the library.”
“These folks are the working poor,” Carlson said. “I feel like perhaps they are getting picked on because nobody thought they’d fight back.”