Hillsboro's library employees unionized last year and have been negotiating with the city for the past year.

PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Hillsboro librarian Mary Davis at the Brookwood branch, who says that the new contract hashed out by union members will give employees more say in library operations.Hillsboro Public Library employees have agreed to a new contract with the city following a unionization effort and lengthy negotiations that began in 2021.

The new contract was approved by the Hillsboro City Council on July 5, and union members voted to approve it a little later in the month.

Effective until the end of June 2024, it comes with many, but not all, of the provisions that library workers sought.

Employees, who describe themselves as "exhausted" by providing a crucial service during a pandemic, say that the key benefit is simply having a seat at the table.

"I think burnout is maybe going to be less of a factor now because we feel like, at this point, at least we have a voice," said librarian Mary Davis, who works at the Hillsboro Brookwood Library. PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Hillsboro librarian Mary Davis clips a lunch room copy of new labor contract with the city at the Brookwood Library. The contract is the result of about a year of negotiations following a successful unionization last year.

Employees turned to Oregon AFSCME Council 75 in June 2021 after voting to unionize. The new contract has come into effect a little over a year later.

This wasn't the first time that HPL employees attempted to unionize. Another effort around five years ago never really got off the ground, said Davis, who has worked in Hillsboro for 11 years.

This latest effort was driven by a lot more factors. One of the biggest: the pandemic.

As with other sectors around the country, local library employees say that COVID-19's impact really put things into perspective on the risks they take and in some of the inequities within their organization.

It also contributed a lot to burnout and people leaving their jobs, leaving positions unfilled and remaining employees to pick up the slack.

"We're exhausted, and that leads to both emotional and physical issues," said Katherine Knox, a library employee who spoke to Pamplin Media Group prior to the new contract being approved. "We need that support from management in order to deal with that. That's partly where the staffing issue comes from." PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Hillsboro library worker Mary Davis sorts through some of the books at the Brookwood branch.

Knox and other employees noted that because of libraries' status as a free resource, demand for their services went up while most other services were closed.

Hillsboro's libraries were physically closed during the first phase of the pandemic, but that closure put pressure on library staff to offer more services over the internet and through no-contact methods. And when the doors finally reopened, employees encountered a public that was eager to use the library and frustrated by the impacts of COVID on their daily lives.

The new contract, and the other steps the city took to address employee concerns during negotiations, seeks to limit library workers' fatigue and provide better communication between management and staff.

For instance, the contract contains cost-of-living adjustments and a faster accrual rate for paid time off.

Thanks to the creation of a new labor management team, it also guarantees library employees a seat at the table for future contract negotiations.

Davis said that while COVID really put working conditions under a microscope and spurred workers to unionize, the conditions of the pandemic may have actually helped to organize workers. PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Mary Davis is the director of early literacy programs at the Brookwood Library in Hillsboro, so she frequently searches for books in this section to add to reading lists and read-along sessions.

"I think that's part of where this effort succeeded but the other failed," Davis said. "Before, we were still trying to meet people in person, but this time we managed remote meetings … (and) it's a lot easier to coordinate everyone that way."

The union's negotiations may have also prompted Hillsboro to re-evaluate all city jobs, considering how much equivalent positions pay in other cities.

Davis said that unionizing has caused the city to look at boosting wages and vacation times for even non-represented employees.

"I think if nothing else, it got them thinking," Davis said. "It's one of their stated goals that they want to be the public employer of choice. And, now that they know what people want, I think they are doing their best to provide it."

While city officials denied that it comes in direct response to the new union, Hillsboro is launching a study to look at what similar jobs in comparable cities look like, so as to remain competitive.

That process could take years, however. In the meantime, Hillsboro is instituting a more immediate pay bump for all non-represented employees — below director-level positions — as well.

"The city recognizes the changing job market and wants to address the immediate potential that some positions are not well aligned with our comparable employers," said Patrick Preston, a Hillsboro spokesperson, in an email.

That announcement coming after the library contract was settled didn't sit well with some library employees, however. PMG PHOTO: TROY SHINN - Hillsboro librarian Mary Davis looks over the shelves at the Brookwood Public Library while speaking about the results of new union negotiations with the city.

In a follow-up interview, Davis said that while she saw the pay increase generally as a good step, she and others found the timing of the announcement "a little suspicious."

"I feel like we would have pushed for some of the things that got dropped during the negotiating process a little harder if we knew that they were going to do that," she said.

Most notably, Davis said the union agreed to drop what's called a "me too" clause that would have required library employees to receive comparable raises if the city started giving them to non-represented employees, particularly if those raises are bigger.

Ultimately, however, she stressed that union members are glad to have a bargaining process built into their contracts, so they can push for these things when they go back to the table.

Employees said that unionization doesn't just help the employees, it also helps the public that they serve.

"When you have staff that are exhausted and injured, you can't support the public," said Knox. "It's difficult to put on a smile and carry on."

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct Katherine Knox's name and to clarify that her interview came before the approval of the new contract.

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