A severe staffing shortage hampered the city's efforts to reopen libraries as pandemic restrictions were lifted, and it risks forcing the short-term closure of some branches until the kinks are worked out.
Ed Cuddy, the city’s manager of library services, said the staff shortage delayed the libraries’ recent reopening to in-person visits by at least a week.
As of Monday, library patrons could browse for books in-person. However, the shortage kept some services from resuming, such as the Millennium Library IdeaMILL makerspace, Cuddy said.
"We’ve got people from Millennium (Library) working at (other) branches almost throughout the pandemic because there were so many gaps in the system," he said.
The city’s libraries had a combined total of 312 staff and 92 vacancies as of July 23. That compares to 360 employees and 27 unfilled positions on March 9, 2017.
The number of vacancies surged during the pandemic, rising to 29 per cent on July 23 from 10 per cent on April 20, 2020.
The lack of staff could put some of the city’s 20 library branches at risk of short-term closures or reduced hours, Cuddy said.
"Some locations may end up, just because of things like sickness and vacation, they may be running really short, so we may have to mitigate that. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to close temporarily, but it’s a possibility with the staffing level so short," said Cuddy.
The manager said the number of empty positions began climbing years ago, due to vacancy management. Through that process, the city saves money during the time period between when employees depart and when others are hired to fill their positions. The libraries branch is expected to save $1 million through that process this year.
Cuddy said the pandemic slowed down hiring efforts and changed working conditions. COVID-19 health orders forced staff to cope with constantly changing services, such as curbside book pickups, and two rounds of layoffs.
Cuddy said the branches were lucky to keep most staff after the layoff periods ended, but he suspects pandemic conditions contributed to a recent surge in retirements.
"I’m sure that (the pandemic) played into the decision for people... especially earlier this year, when things looked really bad. Of course you’re going to take that into consideration," he said.
A Winnipeg mother browsing the shelves of Millennium Library with her children on Thursday said library access is especially appreciated now. She said signing out books offers a welcome return to normal activity following remote learning.
"After being at home for so long, where (the kids) can just be on the phone and the computer (all the time), I just want to get their hands on actual books," said Sandra Hernandez.
Hernandez said she is concerned the staff shortage could force service reductions in libraries, which her family plans to visit often this summer.
"Libraries are such an important activity for kids. I think this is what we actually need the city to… put more resources into," she said.
Alex Chorro, who said her two children frequently use the library, said its services and staff level should be a key municipal priority.
"It saddens me that (saving money through vacant library positions) even has to come into play. I think this is something so important for many reasons, for many people. For me, it’s obvious that this should be a priority," said Chorro.
Cuddy said the city is trying to fill many of the vacant positions as soon as possible and hopes all library services can resume by the end of the year.
The city said recruitment for many of the open library positions will begin soon, with listings at Winnipeg.ca/careers.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.