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Athens-Clarke County Library Employees Are Underpaid

Library director Valerie Bell says she continues to seek funds to pay employees a living wage. Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file

When the Athens-Clarke County Commission raised the local government’s wage floor to $15 an hour earlier this year, it included all full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal workers, endeavoring to leave no one behind. But there’s still one group of public employees in Athens who don’t make anywhere close to a living wage: those at the ACC Library.

The ACC Library is part of the Athens Regional Library System, which is itself a part of the University System of Georgia. The Athens Regional Library System spans five counties and is primarily supported by those county governments, with some funding coming from the state government as well. The ACC government is its biggest funding source, providing about $2 million of the system’s $4.6 million budget in 2018

This year, the ACC library requested a $48,000 budget boost, which the local government readily provided. That was enough to give ACC library employees a 2% raise, but not enough to provide a living wage for everyone who works there.

The average worker at the ACC Library makes much lower than $15 an hour. They don’t even make a living wage for a single adult with no children, as determined by the MIT Living Wage Calculator. Despite holding master’s degrees in library science, ACC librarians start at $13.50 an hour, while some other employees make less. Recent job postings show that the ACC Library is seeking to fill certain positions not requiring advanced degrees at $10, $9.50 and even $8 an hour. 

According to a wage survey done by the American Library Association in 2019, wages for librarians in Athens are close to the lowest found anywhere across the entire country. In Atlanta, ZipRecruiter lists the average librarian salary at $24 an hour, while libraries in Macon-Bibb County pay $20 an hour for a starting librarian. According to Valerie Bell, executive director of the Athens Regional Library System, 52 of the 74 library system employees (or 70.3%) make under $15 an hour, and 34 of them (or 45.9%) make under $11 an hour. 

One ACC library employee said that librarians are not being paid enough to pay back their student loans. Low wages lead to burnout and turnover, with employees leaving as soon as they earn their master’s degree from UGA. “I love books. I love the library, but I also need to be able to afford the basic cost of living,” the employee said.

With the local government providing most of the library’s funding, it would stand to reason that they are the ones who set wages there, but this is not exactly true. The library is considered an “independent agency” by the local government, meaning that the commission provides the funding, but has no control over wages, which are set by library management.

Bell said she asked the commission for a 2% raise for library employees this year, which was granted in the most recent budget. Bell said she “would love to” raise the library’s base pay to $15 an hour and hinted that this might be accomplished in coming years through a phased process. “Please know we are working with [ACC Manager] Blaine Williams to make the appropriate adjustments over the next few years,” she said.

The library last boosted their wage floor in 2017, when the local government raised its lowest paid workers to $11.60 an hour. The ACC Library, being an independent agency, was originally not included in this increase, but the mayor and commission ended up finding an extra $70,000 for the library to raise wages as well. At the time, the mayor and commission said this would be enough to raise all workers there to $11.60. Four years later, wages have still not gotten to $11 an hour for many library employees. This is because the $70,000 was not enough to boost every library employee to $11.60 an hour and adjust for the resulting wage compression.

Despite this increase, the gap between current salaries at the library and a living wage in Athens has been growing every year. For example, rents have gone up 33% on average over the past four years, and the overall cost of living has increased as well. Bringing wages at the library in line with living expenses will continue to get tougher every year.

One commissioner, Carol Myers, said she wants to make sure library employees are paid a living wage in future budgets, or perhaps even by amending the existing budget this year. She referred to low library salaries as an “oversight” which she intends to correct “as soon as possible.” However, the ACC Commission has no direct control over the wages of library workers. If workers there are to be paid a living wage, the commission would need to provide the funding, but library management would be the ones to actually raise wages. Unfortunately for library workers, this means they might need to wait for a few years as management plans for how to best solve the problem of wage compression.

“The library is a valuable community resource,” said the library employee. “I don’t think people realize how much the library does for the community. I think Athens wants to support the public library, but people don’t realize that a huge part of a strong library is supporting the library workers, too.”

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