January 6, 2014

Brooding, rambly thoughts on #precarityis

A few days ago, Myron (fellow librarian, former classmate, library advocate, and noted rabble-rouser) started the Twitter hashtag #precarityis to open up the much-needed conversation about precarious employment in the library world (in particular, but by no means limited to libraries in the Lower Mainland). Since then I've been closely following the hashtag, subsequent blog posts, and Facebook comments. The topic really resonated with me having been in a state of precarious work my entire working life without ever really being conscious of that fact. Next year marks the dubious occasion where my employment in libraries equals exactly half my life.

Duck at the Botanics, Edinburgh, cropped from previous version. Taken from English Wikipedia by en:User:Kitkatcrazy.
from English Wikipedia by en:User:Kitkatcrazy.

I wanted to share some thoughts/insights because I feel like I'm in a unique position to speak about it with my job situation(s) (working as an auxiliary librarian in two local library systems), but I totally know I'm not in a unique position at all. Precarity is the norm. Many (if not most) of my colleagues, co-workers, and friends are all somewhere along the spectrum of precarity and if they're not, it just might be that they left town. And not just librarians, but shelvers, library assistants, library technicians, and so on. We've been raised in an ecosystem of precarity. I had to rush out this post so i didn't chicken out or forget what I wanted to say. I'm so not a soapboxy person. "Be like the duck" has been a long-time personal mantra: calm on the surface, paddling like the dickens underneath. Or in the immortal words of Thumper, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all." Head down, non-confrontational, that's my M.O. so I've really been going back and forth about whether or not to go ahead with this blog post. But last week, I read this article by football player Chris Kluwe (with greater stakes and under greater scrutiny) about his speaking out for same-sex marriage rights. That convinced me it's time for me to say some things that need to be said. It's important to have this conversation, to add to it, to help inform those outside the precarity situation about how and why it's like this. The mental and physical toll precarity takes on an organization's employees.  I hope this is viewed as an effort to make my libraries better.

Some context:

The hashtag conversation that kicked things off

Wikipedia article on precarity
Until last week, I was unfamiliar with this term, though it exactly describes the current state of affairs in libraries.  I realize precarity extends well beyond libraryland, but that's where this conversation is focused.

Insightful blog posts from fellow librarians:
*  #precarityis what happens to the best minds of my generation  [Librarianaut]
*  #PRECARITYIS…  [Metacate]
*  On Precarity  [Bibliocracy]

Before moving to Vancouver, I'd honestly never heard of the term "auxiliary" in the context of a job. When I started applying for library jobs here in 2008, it took me a long while to get my head around the logistics of the on-call/auxiliary system because it's fairly counterintuitive, yet it's the defining trait of library work in the Lower Mainland. I had first applied for an auxiliary shelver position at a local public library. Nevermind that I'd already worked 8 years in higher positions at libraries in Alberta, public and academic, but this was one of those "foot in the door" moves that is always advised by well-wishers until you realize 5 years later you've only managed to wiggle your way through the door up to your knee and that you're doing the splits because you have your other limbs stuffed in other doors. We'll talk about the schizophrenia of this lifestyle later. It started with a big room of ~100 applicants assembled for a written test, which would narrow down the field for later in-person interviews. As we read over the cover sheet of what the position entailed, someone raised their hand and asked for clarification on a strangely worded sentence. The moderator's response: employees had to make themselves available for at least 20 hours a week, while no minimum hours were guaranteed. That person audibly rolled their eyes and walked out while the rest of us put our heads down and started the written test. Props to that person, but I guess no one else had the luxury of turning down a job with no guaranteed hours. Later I did a group interview with 4 other candidates and even later a one-on-one interview. To date, it's the longest and toughest hiring process I'd had to go through for any job, let alone an entry-level, zero-hours position. A couple weeks later I got a rejection letter in the mail. A couple months later after a similar hoop-jumping experience, I did eventually get hired as an auxiliary Library Assistant. For the past 5 years, whenever I'd Skype with my parents, my dad would always ask what's your schedule like or how much work are you getting? Eventually he learned to stop asking because I could never give a straight answer and the question was driving me crazy. The only regularity is irregularity.

Getting hired was the just first step. At orientation, the big question was how you go about getting hours. The answer is you become a door-to-door salesmen and "get your face out there". You've got a golden ticket into the factory, now you have to hustle for work. I cold called, cold e-mailed, wandered around to branch libraries giving out my phone number. I shouldn't have to point out how demoralizing this is as an "employee". Mass e-mails became the de facto method of finding out about shifts. You and other auxiliaries are pitted against each other in a mad scramble to reply within the first 2 minutes of receiving a call-out. Notably, this favoured those with smartphones or those who sat around at a computer all day. After hopping from branch to branch, I soon lucked into filling hours to cover a long-term disability, which kept getting extended indefinitely. I was basically working full-time hours at a single location (ideal!) and this amazingly lasted over two years. Two years of regular, full-time work that was not technically classified as "regular, full-time" work, meaning no benefits and no accrued seniority. Then I decided to go to library school and it was back into the auxiliary pool and back to hustling. All your colleagues sympathize because they've mostly gone through the same system until they got where they are, but some people never break out of it. I've met co-workers who've been auxiliary 5, 8, 10, 15 years and that scares me. I'm one year into auxiliary librarianship (five going back to my library assistant days) and I have another 5-10 years of this to look forward to? Or will I be auxiliary for life? I know I've already been bypassed on the ladder by later graduates with more out-going and go-getter personalities (see: resentment among auxiliaries. But no knocks against them, they're legitimately awesome people). I've given interview/job advice to people to help them get jobs since it's in my nature to have a sharing/collaborative, pay-it-forward philosophy, but it feels a lot like self-sabotage.

When you're hired as an auxiliary there's a tacit understanding you probably will, if you don't already, have another job to make up the shortfall. In the library world, a lot of us work in two or more separate library systems in multiple cities in the Lower Mainland. It's unusual here in that there are so many distinct library systems within a relatively small geographic area. Even though we're in unionized positions, the separate unions/systems mean we can and do willingly work around limits to hours worked in a day or week. Across multiple library systems, your potential hours of work are 7 days a week, morning/afternoon/night. It's a rare class of job where you can be both overworked and underworked simultaneously [**EDIT: as has been pointed out to me, this is not rare at all. That's just me with my libraryland blinders on].  You may be frequently work 40+ hours over a 7 day work week because the work calendar looks awfully blank three weeks down the line. I try to avoid it, but myself and others occasionally agree to work 4 hours at one library and scramble to another municipality's library for a 8 hour shift on the same day. Why? To keep all the plates spinning so one system doesn't forget about you. This fall, I was averaging 2-3 days off a month. Everything else just ran together into an amorphous "work month". On ostensible days off, there's always the looming threat of a phone call too. It's hard to say no to shifts because you might not be asked again.  Yeah, the system "works" in the sense that you can theoretically get lots of hours, as long as you accept as an auxiliary that when you're working someone else is not working.

On the flip-side, no guaranteed hours means you can virtually disappear for unpaid vacations at leisure. Don't feel like working? Turn off your phone. I've been at this so long, I've been conditioned to fear full-time when the opportunities have presented themselves. What's the big deal about dental plans? Extended health care? Paid sick leave? Paid vacation? What are these things and how do they work? A couple weeks ago I took a paid vacation for the first time in my life and felt guilty about it. Would these feelings change if I got a permanent, full-time job or would that just make me a lottery winner among colleagues? There's something broken at the systems in place here. I felt it when I moved here and it's lately come into sharp focus.  I don't know how, but morale among staff has actually dropped since I started and it was certainly at no high point then.

What does precarious work do to your brain? I used to joke that "Ha ha ha, I don't even know what day it is!" but now it's often a sad fact: "Um, what day is it today?". That's what happens when there's no distinction between a weekday and weekend. Everyday can be like the first day of a new job (with all the associated stress that would typically entail) with new faces and procedures to learn. Even within the same library system, individual branches have their own fiddly ways of doing things despite efforts to standardize things systemwide. You expend tremendous effort thing to get a grip on things, only for it to be yanked away since you may not be there for weeks or months and you'll have to do it all over again. You don't fully internalize the borrowing policies and hours of where you work because the where and what changes on a daily basis. The biggest public library system around here has about 20 branches (plus numerous departments at the main branch); other local systems have anywhere from one standalone library up to 9 branches. If you work in multiple systems, you could end up almost anywhere on any given day. You end up getting a orientation for each new branch you work at or re-orientation if you haven't been there in months. I imagine this ends up costing libraries more time/money than they realize when you've got hundreds of auxiliaries in a constant state of receiving orientations and branch tours. As an auxiliary librarian, you're put in a position where ironically you're the most senior person on staff: responsible for emergency responses, where fire extinguishers are, etc. Sometimes you even grow an anxiety over accepting shifts at new worksites. On one particularly challenging early shift as new librarian, I had a fire alarm, broken sliding door, and abandoned child to handle. Thankfully I was able to resolve these situations (following some panicky phone calls). Was it by the book? I don't know since I was still reading the book. Repeatedly going over procedures is a task often assigned to auxiliaries because a)you need it and b)you can't be given meaningful long-term projects.

You have to consciously prioritize whose names and faces to remember because you may see them tomorrow or never. I've met new colleagues and said "It's a pleasure to meet you and I'll never see you ever again!" as a joke, but I've seriously never seen them again. Auxiliaries suffer from isolation in the work place. You walk in, do your time, walk out. People don't really get to know you. This Christmas, I went to multiple staff Xmas parties. People thought I was just cynically doing "rounds" to put my face out there. I'd be lying if that wasn't partially true (which I hate), but it's hard being outside the team and out of the loop. If I didn't put in the effort, I wouldn't see work-friends or get a sense of any sort of workplace solidarity. This past year, I've started to become aware of my memory issues with names and faces. My mum told me someone from [public library in Alberta] said hi and that she used to work with me at [library in BC]. I had absolutely no idea who she was talking about, but they knew me. This has now sadly happened a couple times. I thought this was my brain's inevitable aging process, but then I also realized that at no point in my life have I ever been required to know so many names and faces. If I were to write down the names of everyone in libaryland I know by name, it's an epic list. At one system there are like 800 staff alone that you may be called upon to recall at any moment. Of course, no one actually expects this, but it's embarrassing the frequency of the whole "have we met?" conversations or "Hello… you." greetings we dole out. On my bike ride to work, I'd mentally try to remember anyone I might encounter at that particular branch that day. Another system: 4 branches, another 100 employees. It becomes difficult to create meaningful connections with colleagues, let alone patrons. My heart drops when a patron or child thanks me for something I did last week and I don't even recognize them. This is simply detrimental to the customer service ideals we espouse.

After all that doom and gloom, the truth is I like my job(s) a lot.  I've made it work for me.  The scary thing is that I know (or hope) that I'm in a relatively good and stable situation at the moment. I'm debt-free and my only dependent is a meowy cat. I'm working temporary full-time at one library plus a upcoming semi-regular gig on Saturdays, so I'm down to a 6-day work week (from 7-days, pre-December). But after May, who knows? I've got a healthy resume, lots of experience, skills/adaptability, feet in doors, toes in pools, thumbs in pies. All on the perhaps misguided belief that it'll all pan out. I can't help being a hopeless optimist.

When I left Alberta, I was working a 17.5hr part-time (obviously, just below the benefits cutoff) at a library I loved, but wasn't going anywhere. It was a emotionally a big deal the day I went to hand in my resignation letter. I wanted to give my assistant manager the heads up directly. I was super nervous going into her office, but when I announced the news her eyes lit up. She was thrilled and excited for me. She was in her last weeks before retirement and told me something I'll never forget (completely paraphrasing here): "The great machine will churn on without you, without me." I knew it was going to be this way before I decided to go into library school: comparatively low pay, slim job prospects. But I freakin' LOVE libraries. I believe in libraries. And sometimes I wish it went both ways.