Better Pay, Reduced Workweek Hours and Improved Benefits Revived Montville Township (NJ) Public Library

Already established substandard wages, poor productivity, bad morale, high staff turnover, mediocre customer service, a non-competitive workweek, poor workplace conditions and facing hostile collective bargaining negotiations just around the corner, the outlook for improved wages and work conditions seemed hopeless. The year was 2003 and the union contract had already expired. As the newest director at the Montville Township Public Library, following a series of rotating directors, I had to remind myself why I accepted the Director position. I told everyone it was because I needed a new challenge. Challenge was an understatement.

The following article should motivate other librarians and library workers in similar seemingly hopeless situations not to give up. Even if it’s only one person, albeit the director or a department head or a lone board member, it is possible to pave the way for positive negotiations, revive staff morale and confidence, and convince library trustees that it is important to pay market rate wages and offer competitive benefits in order to provide better service to the communities we serve. I should know because I did it and in all honesty it wasn’t easy. There is no substitute for fact-gathering, number crunching and a constant “stay the course” mentality.

At the time, I had just completed a statewide salary survey for the New Jersey Library Association and a salary advocacy toolkit for the membership, so I was feeling quite confident at the time that I could take on another demanding project. I told myself I would make a difference for the Montville employees and the library. After all, I had improved wages and salaries as director of two other public libraries. I had been through the ALA salary advocacy training in Atlanta the previous summer. In short, it was time to put my money where my mouth was.

Allow me to provide a bit of backdrop to the challenges that I faced. The library had been suffering from a leadership vacuum due to long periods of either no director at the helm or a series of intermittent directors and acting directors. To be fair to some of these individuals, they were often so overloaded with day-to-day building problems and personnel staffing issues, there was little time to address global concerns, such as the overall wage structure, benefits and customer service.

Not only was there a leadership vacuum at the director level, the board of trustees was unfocused. There was no strategic plan or vision and there was no commitment to staff development. An internal building renovation project had just been completed in 2002, which had required the bulk of the previous director’s attention. The building project seemed to be the primary focus for everyone at the expense of the collection, morale, poor wages and staff vacancies. In fact, when I arrived in early 2003, there was a beautifully renovated children’s library, but no children’s librarian. What is the point of having a beautiful building if there is no one to staff it?

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on how the Library Director and the Library Board improved overall salaries, wages and benefits due to a significant change in commitment. How does a change in direction/commitment occur? What is required to initiate this change? How does a Library Director convince a Board of Trustees that it is imperative that more dollars be allocated to wages and salaries?

First and foremost, someone—the Library Director, a trustee, or a staff person—must take on the role as “lead spokesperson.” They must be willing to articulate what the key issues are and why the current practices must change. Articulating the issues requires: 1) identifying the problem; 2) identifying potential solutions; 3) conducting a cost/benefit analysis for budget purposes; 4) and a constant reiteration of what you are hoping to accomplish.

In the case of the Montville Township Public Library (MTPL), the head of the Personnel Committee took on the role as lead spokesperson. She was a stickler for facts and numbers and knew it was not adequate to just say wages at the MTPL were substandard or below other libraries within the county. She wanted proof and the more numbers the better. It was up to the Director of the Library and the business manager to gather the data. There was evidence that wages were not competitive; staff turnover between 1999 and 2002 was 50%. Many employees were leaving citing a non-competitive hourly wage, a non-competitive workweek, and a weak benefit package in relation to other libraries within Morris County. The workweek at MTPL was 40 hours a week, whereby all other libraries within the county worked a 35-hour workweek. The longer workweek only made the hourly wage differential that much more disparate.

The philosophical mantra that the Director and Personnel Chair repeated often to the remaining board members was that “if the library wants to attract high quality job candidates and retain them, the library must increase wages and benefits and reduce the work hours to become competitive.”

The first step toward proving that wages for MTPL were substandard involved surveying each library within the county. The library attorney, who was preparing for the upcoming union negotiations, actually mailed the survey out to surrounding libraries on his letterhead. Coming from the board attorney added some credence and urgency to the matter. There were only a few weeks to gather the data and prepare for late summer negotiations. The first time the survey was sent out, only nine libraries out of thirty-four (34) surveyed responded. The small sample size that responded did not satisfy the Personnel Committee. As mentioned previously, there is no substitute for fact-gathering and data collection. As a result, a second survey was conducted.

This survey yielded better results. Fifteen (15) libraries responded and the wages from both surveys, along with our own actual hourly wages for MTPL (see Table I-2003, actual figures are in first column). Based upon an employee earning $30,000 per year, it was deemed that a Montville library employee earning the same wage earned approximately $2.00 per hour less due to the forty (40) hour workweek, a 12.5% differential.

In nearly all job classifications except “principal library assistant,” a Montville library employee actual salary was below the Morris County average. (see Table 1—shaded column to far right). After weeks of data gathering, it was clear that the MTPL wages were considerably below their counterparts within Morris County. The Personnel Committee still had two more items to address: 1) the forty (40) hour workweek, and 2) the lack of benefits that were competitive with other libraries.

Regarding the workweek, a cost benefit analysis was performed showing what the “cost” to the library budget would be in terms of lost productivity for the final quarter of 2004 and all of 2005. Note that union employees were now working more than a year and a half into a new contract year without a finalized contract. A mediator had been assigned to complete the negotiations in August of 2004. The Personnel committee was preparing for a wage restructuring to take place in the final quarter of 2004 and of course this would impact all of 2005 as well. After conducting a cost benefit analysis, the impact on 2004 was negligible due to staff vacancies. This was good news and was making a case for implementing the workweek change.

The pluses of a thirty-five hour workweek were:

  • A thirty-five hour (35) workweek would achieve parity with other Morris County libraries at a minimal cost to the salary and wage line item in 2004 and 2005.

  • Because full-time staff salaries would not increase during 2004, the net savings to payroll would not be compounded in subsequent years and payroll taxes would be reduced by 8% (payroll tax rate in NJ).

  • Recruitment efforts would be enhanced dramatically.

  • Staff turnover should be reduced.

  • The mantra of “attracting high quality job candidates and retaining them” was again reinforced.

The minuses of a thirty-five (35) hour workweek were:

  • The reduced workweek would set a precedent for future wage negotiations. However, any change could be negotiated as a one-time occurrence.

  • The reduced workweek could be or would be construed as a huge “gain” for the union, which could affect the balance of future negotiations.

Due to space constraints of this article, it is not possible to illustrate all of the cost benefit scenarios. For instance, another concept that was considered was a one-time across-the-board 10% wage increase for all union employees, while retaining the forty (40) hour workweek. While this was actually a less expensive option by a few thousand dollars, it was rejected primarily due to the 10% increase, which again the committee felt would be precedent-setting. They felt it would upset the balance of future negotiations.

The last of the three-pronged approach to correcting the wage and benefit disparities was the “benefit” equation. Vision and dental benefits were available to library employees at their own expense. Approximately ten full-time employees were eligible for these benefits, administered by Montville Township. Several employees had discontinued the dental benefit because the premium was quite high and was almost equal to the overall annual benefit. The annual premium was approximately $900 and the benefit was $1,500 per year. As a result, several individuals had dropped the benefit completely. Employees were also disgruntled over this benefit because Montville Township employees received this benefit, along with vision, at no cost.

As a sign of good faith and as a morale-building exercise, vision and dental benefits were granted to all full-time library employees. The cost to the library for this added benefit was approximately $17,000 per year. Considering that library employees had not received this paid benefit for nearly ten years and through several prior collective bargaining sessions, this was a true olive branch extended by the Library Board. It was an indication that the Library Board really did want to strengthen recruitment efforts and build a positive relationship with the union. A few board members were not completely behind this gesture, but the majority ruled in favor and it was part of the overall Memorandum of Agreement reached between the union and the board in August of 2004.

Following a daylong mediation session in August of 2004, the union employees successfully negotiated the following contract highlights:

  • Three year wage increase of 4.5%, 4.25% and 4.0%

  • Reduced workweek from 40 hours to 37.5 hours per week (compromise)

  • $1.00 per hour increase for all library assistants

  • Increase to $11.25 per hour for all senior library assistants

  • One-time adjustment of 6.25% for all full-time employees due to the reduced workweek

  • Vision and dental benefits for all full-time employees.

Granted, not everyone benefited from the negotiated contract, but in the aggregate there were significant improvements on the wage and benefit side. The most impressive gains were at the entry level and at the senior library assistant job classification level. It took a lot of hard work (more than a year and a half) to convince everyone on both sides of the table that it was necessary and imperative to increase wages and benefits in order to attract good quality candidates and not lose them to other libraries. A new and improved wage structure was intact. Both the Library Board and the union membership ratified the agreement in the fall of 2004.

Now, two years later, spring of 2006, the “proof is in the pudding.” Turnover has subsided, productivity has soared and morale has improved greatly. It is once again time to start preparing for another round of negotiations, as the union contract expires in December of 2006. The good news is that it is possible to turn a bad situation around, but it requires diligence, sound economic arguments, and cooperation among all parties. Sharpen your pencils.

Patricia K. Anderson is Director of the Montville Township Public Library in Montville, New Jersey.