Further Questions: How has COVID affected hiring and staffing at your organization?

Each week (or thereabouts) I will ask the same question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you’d like to be part of this group, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is:

How has COVID affected hiring and staffing at your organization? Were there any layoffs? Hiring freezes? Did staff participate in “the great resignation”? How many interviewee pets did you get to see on Zoom? Please share whatever you think might be interesting.

Jess Herzog, Director of Adult Services, Spartanburg County Public Libraries: No layoffs here, thankfully. We saw a lot of retirements and moving to greener pastures while we were in the depths of COVID. Our hours were limited through April 2021, and we were in a hiring pause through March 2021, but at that point we began to hire to replace the staff that had left. We’ve seen a ton of internal movement across the system since hiring restarted; lots of new MLS graduates filling spots left open by retirements, new branch head installments, and so on. We’re finally to the point where external hires are filling open positions instead of more internal movement overall, and that’s really great news for the system–I think fresh faces are always a benefit to the work we do. Unfortunately mostly for me, if anyone saw anyone else’s pets on Zoom, it was folks getting a view of my giant cat bombing across the screen!

Anonymous: We have lost most of our staff due to layoffs and attrition. It is difficult to hire even when positions are approved, as job-seekers are very sparse here. So I guess that means it’s a good time to be looking for a job!

Headshot of Laurie Phillips

Laurie Phillips, Interim Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: We did not have layoffs due to COVID. We did have one person who was furloughed because they had no possible work to do remotely. When they were meant to return, they didn’t understand that we would have reduced hours and that their new hours were not compatible with their other obligations. That person resigned and we were able to hire to replace them in that position, which would have been late night hours, if not for COVID. Once the desk reopened and our hours returned to normal in fall of 2021, that newly-hired person did not want to work the later hours. We were able to move money around and hire a nighttime desk staff member. It’s worked out very well because we rethought having a staff member in the building until 2am. We are open until 2am, but the desk closes at midnight. People who worked until 2am tended to burn out very quickly.

Our hiring freezes were lifted right before COVID, so we were able to move savings from retirements and resignations around and make new positions and hire in the past year. We didn’t have mass resignations, but we did have a couple people decide to retire due to the stresses of dealing with COVID, hybrid classes, etc. One person left because she could take a job based in another city and continue to work remotely. We have a lot more flexibility to work from home than we did pre-COVID, which has been great when we’ve had variant surges, or even weather events.

This past year, we were able to hire some wonderful library faculty and staff . We’ve hired great people and we’ve brought greater diversity to our organization, which is one of our organizational goals. During the national search for a librarian, we did see a cat or two. The interviewees were horrified, but we reassured them that we always want to see pets on Zoom, even in interviews. It’s just part of the nature of how these things go when you’re working or interviewing from home. My cat would want to be right with me, crawling around on tables, misbehaving, etc. while I was working, so she made many Zoom appearances. There were times when I would have to excuse myself to go get her out of trouble, but generally not while I was interviewing someone!

Now, most of the interviews that would have been over the phone, are conducted by Zoom. I would say to dress well from the shoulders up, check your lighting and technology, be sure audio and video are working and that your name is correct in Zoom, and use a background (or blur), if necessary.

Anonymous: Between March and June of the pandemic, I was hemorrhaging staff. Some of it was the great resignation and some of it was circumstances. In fact, the Board tried to hang the resignations on my neck, and even after they had “exit interviews” with the staff to see if they could get somebody to blame me, it still came down to…husband took job in California, working conditions during a plague, and poor pay, especially while endangering their lives. Board still decided to blister me about it, although I noted that after I left, they continued to lose staff. Isn’t that interesting? A couple of them quit after catching Covid-19, probably at work. It was a fascinating and, frankly, upsetting journey to go from the City Council passing a resolution of thanks and praise for putting together safe library services (e.g. curbside, virtual storyhour, etc.) in March to being the pandemic villain in July. I’d love to be a working librarian again, but never, ever a library director. Well, maybe not never, but there would have to be some understanding in a contract before I would touch it.

Anyway, we did some Zoom interviews. Never met any pets, but that would have been fun.

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: Here at Mason Library we have not done any hiring in about three years, predating the pandemic. The college has been facing some steep budget deficits and the pandemic exacerbated the situation. At the end of the last academic year we had given separation incentives to about 25 faculty and 50 staff and then another 18 or so faculty were retrenched (tenured faculty positions were eliminated and the faculty let go). The library has less than 50% of the staff we had in 2018. Two faculty and three staff left in this latest round.

The library has not had any additional resignations but the college continues to see people leave. There have been some staff and a few faculty hires. Those searches were completely virtual. I participated in a few and did not see pets, children, or stray adults during any interview sessions. I think one of my observations just confirms a trend out there which is that people are increasingly interested in whether flexible work schedules that include some remote work are possible. Ours is a public residential liberal arts campus where most staff worked remotely for 18 months. Our library never closed and there were four of us working there for that 18 months. But the college has been slow to address requests for remote work. I will be interested to see whether that affects our hiring success moving forward. In the meantime we are looking carefully at our staffing so we will be ready with our priorities when the college moves beyond our current fiscal challenges and we can rebuild.

Anonymous: Staffing was a major issue during 2020 and 2021 and not just because of COVID. Prior to COVID University budget issues caused a number of staff to be moved from 12 month contracts to 10. One staff position was also lost. Then COVID hit. With the exception of the end of spring and summer 2020, the library remained open with only rotating skeleton crews in the building while others worked from home. This gave us time to work on projects that could be done anywhere. We also have a very large online Nursing and Education programs which also could be supported from anywhere.

The staff returned to the building as budget cuts continued. Another staff position was lost and two Technical Services librarians decided to leave. Both were from the Midwest and decided that they’d rather return home.

Staffing had been reduced to the point that the administration realized that the two librarian positions had to be replaced in order to support the mission of the library and hiring was expedited. While the candidate pool was of a decent size, there were fewer qualified applicants than we anticipated. We did our typical number of phone interviews, although we switched to Zoom for these. All the candidates were very professional in these Zoom calls – no pets. We decided that Zoom was a much better format for these interviews and will only do Zoom in the future.

We invited five candidates to the campus for onsite interviews. Two of these dropped out at this point which was a first for us. Both indicated that they had other offers closer to where they currently resided. The three remaining candidates, all excellent librarians, were brought to campus to interview. Another dropped out citing that they decided not to leave their current position – another first for us.

Offers were made to the two remaining candidates and both accepted, and are doing very well.

The final pool of applicants were interesting. Smaller than we usually have, but all highly qualified. What we took from this process was that really good applicants will enter searches, but are now choosier in taking positions. They have a greater degree of freedom in deciding where they want to be, and are only going to move if they determine that a position will enhance their careers and wellbeing.

This search also showed us that we had to really work harder in selling ourselves to the candidates. We always did a good job at this, but we quickly learned that we can’t take anything for granted and had to up our game in showing candidates why they wanted to come work for us.

We are still adjusting to the loss of the support staff positions. This did cause us to shorten library hours.

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System

How has COVID affected hiring and staffing at your organization? The Library was closed for periods during the period from March 2020 through January 2021. During that time, some positions were not promptly filled. The closings provided an opportunity to review our real staffing needs. The duties of those open positions during this period were reviewed and changes made that impacted the number of positions needed.

Were there any layoffs? No. Early in the COVID pandemic closing, staff were paid in the belief the closing would be for only a very short period of time. When it became obvious we would be closed for an indeterminate period of time, efforts were made to find work for the staff that could not work remotely so that there would not be a reason to lay off staff due to a lack of work. Hiring freezes? No.

Did staff participate in “the great resignation”? While “the Great Resignation” and “the Great Regret” may turn out to be more media hype than reality, staff did leave during this period for a variety of reasons. Those reasons cited by staff that left our library ranged from the personal, family issues, to the economic, needing a full time job with benefits. If “the Great Resignation” revolved around the desire to find a new job more to the individual’s liking, one would believe there would be an increase in the number of applicants for openings at the library. That proved NOT to be the case. Like so many businesses and organizations, we continue to encounter a shortage of applicants for our openings, leaving us all wondering where did they all go?

How many interviewee pets did you get to see on Zoom? We did not conduct any interviews via ZOOM.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College:

How has COVID affected hiring and staffing at your organization? A great deal. We began to conduct any and all interviews as completely online experiences and ended up having to finish our spring 2020 in-progress pre-pandemic searches in an online mode. In fact, in summer of 2020, we hired two people (one faculty librarian and one Senior Library Assistant) completely online, then started them whereupon they worked for almost a year until we returned to some in-person services with reduced hours but full services fall of 2021. The hybrid – some online, some in-person training for our materials pick up service that so many libraries offered – had to be handled completely differently for these new “virtual only” hires and ultimately most of the overall training, all mentoring, and most meet and greets, etc. were online…and btw, wonderful hires!

Now, we can have interviews in-person or a combination of online and in-person; however, we are staying with all online probably until fall 2022. Partly because – as so many have discovered with online interviews – for even part of the interview process – broadens the field, increasing EDI opportunities and for vetting longer lists of applicants into finalists. Also, the teaching segment of the hiring process for our faculty librarian or Head Librarians/faculty is challenging and very helpful in determining the successful candidate as we continue to support our own instruction sessions both on demand online in multiple formats as well as in person.

Were there any layoffs? No, we retained all employees and for the first year – and for some employees throughout the pandemic – we kept all of our hourly employees with some employment even though they might be doing other things or had reduced hours of work. As an aside, I remained concerned – as I kept up with our profession and many other work environments – that I often saw the most vulnerable employees – our hourlies with no benefits – used to staff the frontlines during the worst of the pandemic. We avoided that when possible, but when necessary we provided all PPE and had greatly changed working conditions to try to safeguard staff members health and reduce areas of concern.

Hiring freezes? Did staff participate in “the great resignation”? No freezes, but I ended up with a number of openings I am filling now. These vacancies were due to primarily retirements, but also someone went to a better and higher level job and ultimately one and possibly two went to online-only jobs outside the profession. So although we didn’t have a job freeze during the pandemic, critical positions had to be justified “on paper” and submitted for vetting to the college Administration for their case-by-case approval.

How many interviewee pets did you get to see on Zoom? Far fewer interviewees actually showed pets or had pets interrupt them on screen. In fact during this past time period, none that I can think of although in one interview we HEARD constant howling and barking and am assuming that was a pet! He apologized once – which was all that was needed and we never mentioned it and it never interfered with his exchanges.

Anything else? What did surprise me were the backgrounds people used or didn’t use. Thought must be put into where you “are” for interviewing and the best bet people have is to use backgrounds available through the software you are using to avoid either downloads or applications not working or not working on some browsers or in some online software products . BUT – for interviews – no French cafes, or driveways with RV’s or cartoon underwater scenes. Instead, interviewees should choose colors with depths indicated so no flat spaces or 1. walls with simple artwork, 2. a business center, 3. a generic workplace office or 4. the “home office” with shelves of books. I must admit; however, I loved the Oval Office background someone used as well as a lovely, simple boutique hotel lobby with individual desk and chair. I also don’t like and find distracting most if not all blurred backgrounds and – because I am guilty of it myself – I don’t like looking into someone in front of a window (glare) and – while I understand most people do NOT have a sophisticated home office – a blank background is preferred over a bedroom with an unmade bed or open closet doors, or the ever-present exercise machine used for hanging clothes. Finally, avoid garages, basements with low ceilings and coffee shop backgrounds either real or “imagined.”

The obvious thing I should end with is; however, if you are being forced to end up with something like a blurred background or a coffee shop because that was all that was available to you, apologize, state you had no choice and drop it. Ultimately, those interviewing you should understand that – in many cases – you are not currently employed and have limitations and few opportunities to pick the “perfect setting.” One of the least expensive enhancements for online discussions is the ring light…and the 15 or 20 dollar one work perfectly and enhance spaces – making almost any environment “work” or look better.

1 Comment

Filed under Further Questions

One response to “Further Questions: How has COVID affected hiring and staffing at your organization?

  1. Pingback: Return to Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.