The writer and poet T.S. Eliot once called libraries the “best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.” But judging by the concerns of Toronto workers staffing the world’s largest public library system, the future is looking pretty grim.
Jobs have been slashed by 17 per cent since 1998, according to the city’s library worker union, despite a 30 per cent increase in circulation. And while the number of public library managers on the Sunshine List has skyrocketed, around 50 per cent of non-management library jobs are part time — leaving many strapped with irregular hours and limited access to benefits and pensions.
With good job creation a staple of the City of Toronto’s proposed poverty reduction strategy, library workers say the city needs to start by looking at its own standards.
“I don’t think we should have mostly female workers working without benefits or working six days a week to get in their hours with little access to sick time,” said Toronto Public Library Workers Union president Maureen O’Reilly, who is making precarious work the organization’s top issue as it renews its collective agreement with the city.
“It is 2015 and the fact that we’re still talking about these things is shameful.”
Dan Keon, director of human resources for the Toronto Public Library, said its employment practices were “fair and reasonable” and that the high volume of part-time hours was a long-standing feature of library work. He said part-time workers were paid the same hourly wage as full-time staff, can access pensions if they accrue enough hours and buy subsidized benefits through their employer.
But the library workers union says much of the part-time work is involuntary, and that less than a quarter of all part-time staff can afford to purchase benefits.
Denise Scott, 28, said she loved her job as a TPL librarian, but that job insecurity was a major stress. Some eight months after finishing a master’s degree in library science, Scott, who also has a master’s in sociology, said the only job she could find was a four-month, part-time contract. Her contract was extended for two extra months but ran out this summer; she is still job hunting.
“I felt like I had to save every penny I earned because I knew when the six months were up I was going to be out of a job again and I was going to have just as much trouble trying to find another one,” she said.
Meanwhile, her union says that in 1999 there were just six library managers on the Sunshine List, which documents the salaries of Ontario public sector workers making $100,000 or more. By 2014, there were 63 managers on the list — with salaries totalling almost $7.6 million.
Keon attributed the growth to inflation. He said he was aware some part-time library staff wanted full-time jobs but were unable to find them, and said such issues would be discussed in the New Year when their collective agreement had expired.
While public library jobs are at least unionized and fairly compensated, O’Reilly said creeping instability is especially concerning given that library workers are 75 per cent female and 50 per cent visible minorities — demographics that already experience higher rates of precarious work and poverty according to research by McMaster University and United Way.
The Star has previously highlighted the growing impact of precarious employment on traditionally stable, middle-class public-sector jobs. Data obtained through a freedom of information request shows that last year, almost highlighted to Ontario ministries were temporary.
Tim Maguire, head of CUPE local 79, which represents 20,000 workers at the City of Toronto, said the city should lead by example when it comes to improving the lot of precarious workers.
“Good jobs are the best way to start moving on the issue of income inequality,” said Maguire.
“The city has a huge responsibility to show leadership on this question,” he added “It’s the first down payment on a poverty-reduction strategy because I think it will get the fastest result.”