Sue Barnum, branch manager of the public library's Westside Branch, was furloughed from her job in May. The city has not allowed many services such as libraries and museums to reopen despite allowing most private businesses to do so. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The city of El Paso on Wednesday informed 75 furloughed employees — mostly library workers — that their jobs are being permanently eliminated. Officials said the employees would be offered other jobs in the city, at or below their previous salaries, if the workers met job qualifications.

The 75 remaining furloughed employees received letters Wednesday saying they’ll be laid off in April, and outlining the process for taking a new city job. The job cuts could portend a greatly diminished library system even after the pandemic ends.

“I feel betrayed. I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the heart,” said Sue Barnum, a librarian who has worked for the city for about 13 years.

City officials did not immediately provide a breakdown of job eliminations by department, but Chief Financial Officer Robert Cortinas said most were in libraries. The city hastily called a press conference on Wednesday after El Paso Matters reported the layoff notices.

City spokeswoman Laura Cruz-Acosta said jobs also are being eliminated in departments overseeing parks, museums and the zoo, but she did not provide any numbers. The jobs available to employees whose positions are being eliminated are in 18 city departments, though Cruz-Acosta provided no specific numbers.

Cortinas said the city was following civil service rules in bringing back furloughed employees. He said 65 of the 156 workers originally furloughed in May have returned to work at the city, and 16 decided to retire or take jobs elsewhere. The remaining 75 will now be offered other jobs in the city and will have 24 hours to decide whether to accept a new position or be laid off.

“So this provides an employment opportunity for the employees that are currently on furlough. And then on top of that, it attempts to avoid any layoffs,” Cortinas said.

Barnum, who was the manager of the Westside Branch library, said she received the layoff notice after months of not receiving any information about what would happen when the furlough period ended after one year.

The city of El Paso has furloughed more than 100 workers like Sue Barnum, manager of the Westside Branch library, since May. Barnum said that libraries are especially important in El Paso, whose literacy rate and “culture of reading” is well below the national average. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

According to the letter she received, the layoff is effective April 5. The furlough period would have ended in May. The city has been paying health insurance benefits for its furloughed employees.

The letter stated in part, “As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, some City of El Paso services have been reduced or suspended. As a result, some employees lack sufficient or essential work to perform during this time. Therefore, it has become necessary for some City of El Paso employees to be laid-off.”

Barnum said the letter created uncertainty and sent a wave of panic to other library employees who received it.

“I got calls from people crying because of what they did,” Barnum said.

The letter states the laid-off employees have a right to be placed in a vacant position at or below their current pay-grade provided that they meet the qualification requirements of the position, but does not guarantee they will be placed.

“I feel scared because, you know, I have a family to take care of,” Barnum said.

Barnum, whose work experience has been in libraries, said she is not sure what kind of position she will be offered as part of the process, but she will take it.

“I’m a librarian. I want to go back to the library. So if this is a way that I can stay in the system I will take it, but I’m not happy about it,” Barnum said.

Rick Aragon, who has worked for the city for 12 years and as a librarian for four, said he is angry about how the city has handled this process and it is still unclear — based on the letter he and others received — what is going to happen.

“I feel that the city manager’s office, in particular, has a pathological hatred for this (library) department and that we have been made expendable,” he said. “They’ve made a mess, after a mess, after a mess of everything.”

Aragon said the unease and mistrust could have been avoided with more communication from city officials. 

“I know that all of this stress could have been avoided. I know that some of my co-workers have just been in tears — very upset and it’s been frustrating,” Aragon said. “All of this could have been avoided if they had someone just clarify things and kept us informed rather than just constantly make us guess and guess and guess.”

Cortinas said it was too soon to know whether the deep cuts to library employees will force changes like branch closings or reduction of hours of service once in-person services resume. The city currently allows only curbside pickup of books.

“I think we all wish we had the answers now,” adding that such issues will need to be addressed in the city’s budget process this summer.

Margaret Neill, a librarian in Las Cruces who used to work for El Paso Public Libraries, said she is concerned the city’s move will permanently reduce library services post COVID-19.

“I don’t see the library coming back in the way that they were pre-COVID in any branch. There may be closures, probably consolidations,” she said.

Neill said it would be difficult to sustain library programming or services in the same capacity with a reduced staff.

“In a city that’s as large as El Paso, it’s sad to see. That’s probably what’s coming down the pipeline for them,” she said.

The city of El Paso placed 156 civil service employees on a furlough status after COVID-19 started spreading in the area and several city services — mainly in the quality of life sector such as libraries, museums and recreational facilities — were closed to the public.

The City Council has not had a public discussion about furloughed employees in recent months.

El Paso Matters raised the issue after multiple employees came forward with concerns the furlough period will end in May and they had not been notified of whether they will have jobs to return to.

Since the story published, the City Council has had one closed-door executive session discussion, but has not had a public update on what will happen to the furloughed employees.

Limited quality of life services resumed in February, including curbside pickup of library books.

Cover photo: Sue Barnum, branch manager of the public library’s Westside Branch, was told on Wednesday that she is being laid off. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...