Patrick Losinski: “Our employees are not data points." Shuttered since March 14, one of the nation's top library systems took steps this week to shore up its finances as it looks ahead to deep budget cuts.

Deciding to furlough most of the Columbus Metropolitan Library staff because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is the most difficult decision Patrick Losinski has made in his 35-year career. 

“It was gut-wrenching,” says Losinski, the library’s chief executive officer. He announced the action Monday afternoon after the library board of trustees concurred. 

“Our employees are not data points. They pour their heart and soul into their jobs every day.”

Libraries across the state have been closed since March 14 after Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine sought extreme measures to reduce the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus. Schools, colleges and universities, restaurants and businesses deemed non-essential have been shut down and Ohioans have been ordered to stay home. 

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Although Columbus libraries have continued to offer digital resources such as ebooks, movies and learning tools, its physical buildings will remain closed at least through May 2. 

That, and looming funding cuts from the state, led Losinski to implement the furloughs.

As of April 19, 609 of the library’s 846 full- and part-time employees—72 percent—will be furloughed, saving about $575,000 each two-week pay period, says Ben Zenitsky, library spokesman. Those include customer service staff, drivers, sorters, shelvers and others whose jobs can’t be performed remotely. The library will continue to pay health benefits for furloughed employees, and those employees will be eligible for unemployment, Losinski says.

Remaining employees will have their pay cut by 2.5 percent to 10 percent, and Losinski’s annual salary of $270,000 will be slashed by 20 percent. 

Massive furloughs were needed to counteract huge expected state budget cuts in the coming weeks as unemployment explodes as a result of business shutdowns prompted by the spread of the coronavirus. 

Library funding comes largely from the state and from a 2.8-mill property tax levy in Franklin County. The collection of mid-year property taxes may be delayed because of the pandemic, county officials have said, and that would affect the library’s cash flow, Losinski says.

“It’s completely unchartered territory for us. We’re already hearing talk about 20 or 30 percent unemployment and we’re trying to make the best decisions in the short term to make the library viable in the long run.” 

Although the library system has had to shrink hours and make other cuts during economic shortfalls in the past—most notably during the Great Recession in 2009—Losinski said he isn’t aware of any other time in its 147-year history it has had to close its doors and institute furloughs. 

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The library system already cut its annual $70 million budget by $7.8 million in March after it became clear the economy was suffering, Losinski says. 

When libraries can open again is unknown, but Losinski says that library systems across the state already are beginning to map out how that might happen. 

“I believe we’ll be part of the solution, and we’re looking at how we can help our nonprofit partners to use our space and our technology as we come out of this,” he says. “We’re going to ramp up our services and be there for the community. We’ll be ready when they come back.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.