By Sue Tiffin
The following are brief reports of items discussed during a March 16 meeting of the Haliburton County Public Library board.
The rising cost of gas is leaving mileage rates in the dust. Chris Stephenson, Haliburton County Public Library CEO questioned the library’s 45 cents per kilometre mileage rate, and how to more fairly compensate employees using their own vehicles to drive between branches to cover shifts or make deliveries.
He received about 25 responses to an online inquiry asking fellow library professionals throughout the province about the rates they are offering – one of the lowest he found was 54 cents per kilometre, but they were in the process of petitioning for a higher rate. Stephenson said the National Joint Council rate is 57.5 cents per kilometre, and the Canada Revenue Agency approves a rate of 61 cents. Stephenson said he’s aware an increase to the rate would increase the library’s mileage budget, which is already triple what it’s supposed to be in part because of the library’s spread throughout the county, regular delivery twice a week, and staff needing to cover shifts in Highlands East. The library courier will be driving about 1,600 kilometres a month.
He suggested purchasing a library vehicle would help those drivers anxious about driving their personal vehicles for work – currently the library is using a county vehicle until April – and could help to offer services, such as running wi-fi from a van visiting Dorset.
County Warden and Algonquin Highlands Deputy Mayor Liz Danielsen said she had had a similar conversation with the county, which will be reviewing their mileage policy this week.
“Having rates that are half of what we’re paying for gas, it’s not sustainable at all, and it’s not fair for staff to have to be out of pocket for something like that,” she said. “I think that talking about the purchase of a new vehicle is premature, but I would really recommend highly considering an interim increase, to approve a much higher rate.”
The board supported putting something in place to offset costs quickly, due to the significant cost of gas at this time.
“Just as an example, my little Subaru, I could fill for $50 a few months ago and now it’s $100,” said Danielsen. “We can’t ask staff to sustain that for any more than they already have.”
Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts said a quick Google search of mileage rates showed it’s “shocking how low we are at 45 cents.”
“I’d like to help folks out sooner rather than later,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt.
The board supported Stephenson increasing the rate to 59 cents per kilometre, reviewing that in a month’s time.
End of mask mandate has frontline staff facing unknown
Stephenson said the province’s dropping of the mask mandate has brought new challenges for library staff, who serve the public face-to-face. He said he “strongly encouraged” staff to continue wearing masks to protect each other, as colleagues often work side-by-side, but said the unknown came from patrons who might choose to not wear a mask.
He said the situation was likely to cause stress if there was a need for staff to enforce mask-wearing.
“I’m not willing to do that because I think it puts us in an uncomfortable position with people who are upset about masks,” he said.
“It’s a touchy subject but I’m just wondering about telling all the staff that they must wear masks,” said Danielsen. “It seems to me that at this point in time it’s a personal choice, that if they want to wear a mask for their own protection and for others then that’s great and if they don’t want to they shouldn’t have to.”
”It doesn’t just strip us of the authority of enforcing a new policy but it puts the responsibility on an individual,” said Stephenson. “We are in a collective workplace and we care about each other, obviously. What I’m proposing to do is strongly encourage. I’m not commanding anyone to do anything.”
Stephenson said everyone had the right to refuse unsafe work, though Moffatt noted that would be related to aggressive patrons as opposed to provincial guidelines.
“What I’m trying to avoid and what I think will be playing out in workplaces everywhere is difference of opinion that’s heated,” said Stephenson. “I can’t control what the public is going to do but I can encourage staff to care for each other.”
He added: “My fear is that if we’re in a situation where someone does choose to exercise their personal choice, working alongside someone who feels strongly their safety is at risk, then I might just get a series of Leave of Absence notices and then I’m going to be having a hard time.”
Stephenson said he didn’t expect the suggestion to be problematic.
“We’re in it together, we’ve been on the front lines for a very long time now,” he said.
Easter weekend closure
Staff shortages have caused the temporarily closure of branches in Highlands East, as well as an unsustainable working situation in which administrative staff are covering in branches while also fulfilling their own roles.
Stephenson said the library is heading into the busy time of year in terms of programming, and plans to close all branches on the Saturday of Easter weekend, “to give everybody a chance to catch their breath.”
Stephenson said that staff shortages as well as the change in mask mandate regulation is causing stress for all staff.
“I’m gauging the feeling and the vibe in the library right now and we’ve got a lot of work to do together,” he said. “It’s a busy time.”
He said offering an extra day off would result in a loss of wages that day for staff, but also boosts morale. He said he could discuss with staff.
“But to be fair, we are having a hard time staffing the branches on Saturday and I can’t do six days a week anymore, to keep them open.”
The board supported his recommendation.
Stanhope branch remains closed
In his librarians’ report, Stephenson said a group of concerned citizens had contacted the library to ask questions about the renovation details of the Stanhope branch, which has been closed since Aug. 2020.
Moffatt told the group that she had been contacted as well. As a result of COVID-19-related supply chain problems due to the pandemic, Moffatt said, reopening is waiting on the delivery of a door.
“There seems to be a misperception that the township has all the pieces and is just sitting on it and putting it on the back burner and I want to say publicly, to assure folks, that is not the case,” said Moffatt. “We can’t replace a door we don’t have in our possession.”
She said library services have been available in Dysart and Minden still, and the contractor is working on the pieces they can, at the Stanhope branch.