At the Board of Hennepin County Commissioners Administration, libraries and budget committee meeting on Tuesday, November 12th, AFSCME members spoke out against and discussed their experiences of sexual harassment at Hennepin County libraries from patrons and co-workers.

Various county employees testified passionately about their experiences and day to day struggles navigating harassment and their perception of a lack of support from supervisors and county officials. According to the testimony, the threat of and the experience of sexual harassment is a persistent problem for county employees in the library system and potentially for patrons that use the publicly available service. 

The presence of AFSCME members at the county commission meeting is the culmination of two years of activism and advocacy among AFSCME members who have been fighting to improve employer practices around experiences of sexual harassment and assault in their workplace.

Ali Fuhrman, President of AFSCME Local 2822 led the comment period around sexual harassment explaining that,

When our workers face racism and sexual harassment in the workplace, the safety of everyone including our community members is at risk and we really need to make sure that this is a priority for the county to ensure the safety of workers in our community. And we’re asking you to take an immediate and active role in protecting our safety and the safety of our residents.

Anna Zillinger, President of AFSCME Local 2864 spoke to the persistence of the problem and the overall impact. 

The stories of workers being witness to or experiencing degrading behavior are countless and the ongoing lack of means to prevent it is incredibly discouraging, though the county labor relations department and county administration make the case that the county is satisfying the legal requirement. In other words, meeting their requirements to prevent liability. It is far from what we need to shift our workspaces from hostile work environments to spaces that are safe for both staff and community.

Workers described a persistent fear of being followed in and out of the workplace. A library staffer, Angel Gardner-Kocher testified that, 

During my first week working as an associate librarian for Hennepin County Library, one of my coworkers told me how I needed to be careful who was on the elevator with me and always look behind me when I was heading out to the bus stop or the parking lot. She recounted a time when she was threatened with rape in front of a group of visiting middle school students by a patron who repeatedly committed violent acts in and outside of the library and was harassing her after she was threatened.

She described another co-worker retelling a time when she was followed by library patrons. In her time with the county, supervisors had never discussed sexual harassment and in her experience, the security staff seems to be “overwhelmed with higher-level offenses.” 

Gardner-Kocher further stated, 

“In the seven and a half years I’ve been working for the library I’ve seen little progress in addressing what is such a common problem for me and many of my colleagues.”

Librarian Zee Warholm-Wohlenhaus stated, “I don’t know a single library staff person who hasn’t been confronted by the ugliness of harassment, sexual harassment or violence in our workplaces.”

Warholm-Wohlenhaus further stated,

As egregious and deeply saddening as it is to experience harassment from library patrons that I’m trying to assist, I’ve been more astounded time and again by Hennepin County’s lack of foresight in anticipating and responding to this harassment. Our county leaders have failed to do adequate preventative work to address sexual harassment of library employees by members of the public.

Hennepin County Commissioner and Chair of the administration, libraries and budget committee, Debbie Goettel, sent a statement over email:

Safety, fairness, and employee wellbeing are cornerstones of a healthy work environment, and we take the testimony from our employees at the November 12 meeting very seriously. Everyone deserves to feel safe and welcome at the library, especially when we count ourselves among the best public library systems in the country. We must continue to improve how we educate our staff about sexual violence and workplace safety.

In response to the concerns raised by the libraries, the Hennepin County media relations department replied via email with the following statement. 

During the Open Forum portion of the November 12 county board committee meetings, several employees spoke to enhanced staff training around sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. These concerns are taken very seriously and in fact, County Administration has been working closely with staff over the past several years on the topics of training, prevention, and security.

We continue to educate staff about sexual harassment and violence and overall safety and security for our organization.

As an employer, we are committed to continue to evolve our trainings, enhance our resources and ensure all feel safe in our facilities. This is an investment in the most important resource we have – our employees.

Collectively the librarians hope that their supervisors and decision-makers at the county take strong steps soon to begin dismantling the culture of the harassment that they believe is endemic in the county library system.

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