Staffing crisis forcing closures of Seattle Public Library locations through June

Apr 11, 2024, 2:34 PM | Updated: Apr 12, 2024, 11:14 am

Image: Books at a Seattle Public Library location are shown....

Books at a Seattle Public Library location are shown. (Image courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Image courtesy of KIRO 7)

The Seattle Public Library (SPL) will be closing 22 of its 27 locations for at least one day per week until the beginning of June, amid ongoing and increasingly problematic staffing shortages.

Intermittent shutdowns begin this weekend, according to a release, and will last through June 4. Across all locations, it adds up to around 1,500 hours across the eight weeks.

The announcement from the SPL comes after more than two years of unpredictable schedules throughout the library system. It’s been largely attributed to a lack of available employees.

The news triggered alarm within the Seattle community, and among city leaders. Council member Tammy Morales issued a statement Thursday which read in part:

“This is a wake-up call for our city. Without urgent action, things will get so much worse than this. The City of Seattle is facing a more than $240 million budget deficit. There’s no way to cut that much from the budget without decimating essential services like our libraries, work on homelessness, and public safety programs for years to come.”

Morales also highlighted a city council meeting last month, during which library employees expressed their concerns about the impact hiring freezes were having on Seattle’s library system. She urged her colleagues on the council to consider increasing taxes on higher-income residents to address budget shortfalls.

Seattle Public Library struggles with staffing and safety concerns

Despite struggling to rebuild operations affected by COVID-19, the library reported success in recruitment and hiring. It exceeded pre-pandemic open hours in 2023, fulfilling a promise to expand services outlined in a 2019 property tax levy. The $219 million levy also set goals to eliminate late fees, which the library accomplished. Another objective, to improve facilities, remains an ongoing process plagued in some cases by rising construction costs.

But amid that progress, the Library faced a setback. An escalating series of reported “disruptive behavioral incidents” prompted an increase in minimum staffing levels at numerous Seattle locations to maintain security.

$434K in damage reported: Seattle Public Libraries cites increase in loitering, vandalism

A statement on the library’s blog explains it must redirect staff from one location to another “if a branch doesn’t have the right number, or right mix, of staff to open and operate a building safely and with full library services.”

A hiring freeze implemented earlier this year for nearly all Seattle city departments added a layer of complication. While the library system operates independently from the city regarding hiring policies, the department also chose to press pause on bringing in any new employees, citing budget concerns. Chief Librarian Tom Fay recently approved several exemptions allowing for temporary hires. Those positions are expected to be filled in the coming weeks amid the rolling branch shutdowns.

The SPL says some locations will not see schedule changes to ensure ongoing library access in all areas of the city. A full list of the affected branches can be found here. Many of the closures will be during the weekends, but some include additional weekdays.

More on the hiring freeze: Public safety spared as Seattle Mayor Harrell grapples with budget shortfall

Anyone hoping to visit a local branch is encouraged to check the updated schedule on the library’s main website, as unplanned closures can still occur due to maintenance, safety or other staffing issues.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Staffing crisis forcing closures of Seattle Public Library locations through June