Update: El Paso City Council unanimously voted April 12 to raise the city minimum wage to $11.11 and to offer a $1,000 sign-on bonus to new employees hired through Aug. 31.
Nearly a year after the city reopened its libraries for in-person services, some patrons say though they are happy to be able to walk through the doors again, the limited hours make access difficult.
After closing the libraries and furloughing employees in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city began reopening the facilities in April 2021. Currently, nine out of 14 branches are open to the public. Only two offer Saturday hours.
“One of the things we have missed, as time has gone on, is the weekend hours — that’s been hard,” said Katherine Mortimer, a regular library visitor. “Not having any weekend hours has felt especially difficult for working parents and kids in school, for whom the weekend hours are the times that are the most accessible.”
Only the Chamizal Community Library in Central El Paso and the Enrique Moreno Library in the Lower Valley are open on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Before the pandemic, all branches were open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The main branch Downtown was also open on Sunday from noon to 6 p.m.
Mortimer’s husband, Weylin Burlingame, said the lack of weekend hours is puzzling.
“It’s getting a little bit difficult to understand why the city is doing that,” Burlingame said.
City of El Paso Library Director Norma Martinez said they are hoping to revisit the pre-pandemic scheduling in the near future, but are struggling to hire employees.
“We are having some challenges — like everyone else — in hiring employees. Once we have our staff in place we will be able to rethink or reopen or re-evaluate about reopening (to) pre-pandemic hours,” Martinez said.
The city furloughed 118 library employees in spring 2020 due to the closure of city facilities to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In February 2021, the city informed 75 furloughed employees — mostly library workers — that their jobs were being permanently eliminated. A month earlier, some library workers spoke out to El Paso Matters about their concerns that they had not received updates from the city on the status of their jobs.
The move to lay off librarians sparked swift community backlash. A day later the city rescinded several of the layoff notices. About 39 library employees were reinstated at the time.
Of the furloughed library employees, 97 have returned to work, 13 resigned and eight retired.
Sue Barnum, a librarian who had been working at the Doris Van Doren branch before being furloughed, was among the employees that came forward a year ago with concerns about her job.
She was reinstated last March and moved to the Sergio Troncoso branch in the Lower Valley.
“When we first stepped back (into the library), we were still feeling a little bit nervous and shell shocked a little bit from what we went through,” Barnum said of the extended furlough period and initial layoff notice. “But now that we’re here, and we’ve cleared things up, it just feels good. I feel good every single day waking up. I’m excited to come to work.”
Barnum, who has worked for the city for 15 years, said she has received a lot of feedback from library patrons that they are grateful the libraries reopened.
“The people in this community are so friendly, and they’re so supportive of the library and they were really just excited that we’re opening,” she said.
Wendy Menendez, who uses the Richard Burgess Library in Northeast El Paso, hopes the libraries will also expand their weekday hours. She enjoys working from the library to get a change of scenery from her home office.
“I kind of wish they would open earlier than 11 a.m. For me, it would be better if they were open earlier to take advantage of it and then they’re not open on the weekends,” Menendez said.
Before the pandemic libraries opened at 10 a.m. most days of the week. The limited hours are due to staffing issues as city officials said there are 22 vacancies that need to be filled ranging from library assistants to library information service specialists. Martinez said the entry level positions have been the hardest to fill.
“Some of it has to do with the pay when you have other organizations that are offering more money at a starting position, or an entry level position. So those are our challenges,” Martinez said.
Typical entry level positions such as library assistants get paid $10.86 an hour with benefits, Martinez said. The current city minimum wage is $10.36.
Tracey Jerome, deputy city manager for quality of life, which includes libraries, said hiring has been a challenge for positions throughout the organization.
“It’s at all levels as it is across organizations across the United States, and it doesn’t seem to be just about pay any longer,” Jerome said about worker shortages.
Jerome said entry level positions come with a competitive benefits package that includes a pension plan, tuition assistance, health programs, paid time off and career advancement.
The El Paso City Council on Tuesday will vote on whether to approve a hiring bonus for new employees and to raise the city’s minimum wage to $11.11.
If the sign-on bonus is approved, any new city employee who is hired between April 10 and August 31, 2022, will receive $1,000. Under the proposal, the first half of the bonus will be paid after the employee has been with the city for 30 days and the remaining $500 will be paid at the end of a six-month probation period. The sign-on bonus applies to non-uniform, full-time, part-time and temporary employees.