City News

Library staff felt Covid concerns were dismissed by now-resigned librarian

Former city librarian Sarah Strahl stands near the automated materials handler, a machine that will process returns immediately, at the Salem Public Library on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

An email accidentally sent to Salem library employees triggered more than a dozen grievances and the announcement of the city librarian’s resignation.

The remarks contained in the email sent Sept. 22, which included a document with a list of questions from staff regarding Covid concerns ahead of the library’s reopening, left library employees feeling that City Librarian Sarah Strahl was dismissing their health concerns.

Kathy Knock, president of AFSCME Local 2067 which represents Salem’s library workers, said library employees filed 14 grievances in early October, all about the same issue. That’s because the union’s contract with the city doesn’t allow employees to file a group grievance.

Knock said the union believes the comments violated the union’s contract which stipulates, “The city will, in good faith, provide safe working conditions for all employees.”

“The comments were in our opinion a violation of that,” she said.

Knock said an email with the comments attached was mistakenly sent to staff and retracted several minutes later. The email provider Outlook allows users to retract emails only if receivers haven’t opened them already, which some staff already had.

The library had plans to move out of its temporary location on Broadway and into the newly renovated main library by the end of August.

The city had announced a Sept. 1 opening, but ahead of that date Knock said library staff came to the union and asked if it could be postponed. Covid hospitalizations were rising to their highest levels during the pandemic. On Sept. 9, the region recorded its highest Covid hospitalization number yet – 208 people.

The city delayed that opening, announcing then that the opening had been postponed indefinitely.

“We’ll celebrate the renovated library when it is safe to do so – and re-open in-person library services when there is confidence that, when we reopen, we will be able to stay open,” City Manager Steve Powers said in a statement at the time.

Then we heard a few weeks later we had a new re-opening,” Knock said. It was Oct. 1.

Employees were asked to submit questions in writing about their concerns, which lead to Strahl’s comments in her responding email.

For example, one question asked if Powers and Norm Wright, the city community development director, had been informed of the library reopening on Oct. 1 and if they had the opportunity to walk through the building. The city also was questioned about why the leaders had not addressed library workers.

Strahl’s responded, “HAHAHAHAHA. Norm,” indicating Wright should answer that question.

One employee asked when the staff would get de-escalation training beyond what they deemed a “active threat training” provided in August.

In the comments, Strahl wrote, “Niche academy is available to you and has lots of great de-escalation training. Go forth and learn.”

Another question regarding an unbiased assessment of the library’s capacity limits led to Strahl questioning “what is this bias nonsense.”

Strahl couldn’t be reached for comment.

She was on leave the same day she sent the document out, according to the grievance.

In response to a question from Salem Reporter about the basis of Strahl’s leave, city spokesperson Kathy Ursprung said there was no active investigation into Strahl.

“The city of Salem respects the privacy of personnel issues, including employee leave. There are several types of leave afforded to employees, including those which do not involve investigative processes. Ms. Strahl’s resignation was voluntary,” she said.

The library had a soft opening on Oct. 1. Five days earlier the city sent out a news release that said the library would open “express service” meaning patrons could browse shelves once again.

The union’s grievance filed on Oct. 7 asked that Strahl and anyone she supervises not be involved in deciding reopening safety measures, Knock explained.

Her resignation was announced to staff before the city had to respond to the grievance, making the workers’ complaints moot, she said.

“Safety protocols are already made in consultation with other managers and professional staff,” the city wrote in its response to those complaints.

“To have a person in that position to respond to staff concerns as ‘nonsense,’ it’s hard to believe that person is committed to safety,” Knock said.

The city assured the union that people with applicable experience would be involved in safety plans and discussions going forward, which satisfies the union’s request.

“All-in-all, determinations about safety were not left to the city librarian’s discretion – staff at all levels, including knowledgeable and experienced personnel, consistently participated in these decisions, and were central to the decisions made concerning the reopening plans,” the city said in its response, signed by Christopher Rumbaugh, library supervisor III.

Lois Stark, a member of the Salem Public Library Board, asked Norm Wright during the board’s Nov. 10 meeting if there was anything he could tell the board about Strahl’s resignation.

Wright told her it was Strahl’s decision.

“Whatever her reasons they are her own,” Wright said, according to a recording of the meeting. “We respect that and wish her all the best. I know that leaves it ambiguous but that ambiguity, I share it. So that is what it is.”

Strahl’s last day was Nov. 5.

Wright told the library board the city will soon begin to recruit a new librarian.

He said it would be a community event with presentations given by candidates and multiple interview panels.

He told the board a candidate would need to understand the expectations as the library begins a strategic plan that will guide its future.

“Staff are excited about this new era of leadership,” Knock said. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] 

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