The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) just released a report showing that public library workers in Saskatchewan, including at Southeast Regional Library (Weyburn), face increasing levels of verbal abuse, violence and harassment in their workplace.

The report was initiated in response to a growing number of violent incidents occurring in Saskatchewan public libraries.

A total of 101 public library workers participated in CUPE's Workplace, Violence and Harassment online survey. The anonymous survey was carried out from June 29th, 2022 to September 9th, 2022.

Of those that responded, 78% reported that they have experienced verbal abuse (yelling, swearing, racist comments, offensive remarks) in their workplace, 44% reported experiencing some sexual harassment, 50% reported experiencing workplace violence, and 40% of respondents said that they have been threatened by physical harm while at work. 

Most respondents reported that workplace violence has increased over the last two years. Only 30% of respondents said that there was a violence prevention program at their workplace.

The report stated that, "When workplace violence is not treated seriously or not addressed appropriately, the situation could become even more dire, as evidenced in the tragic murder of a patron at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg in December 2022."

Judy Henley, President of CUPE Saskatchewan, said, "What we're hoping is that we have legislation that addresses violence in the workplace. We do know that Bill 91 that is at the legislature right now, will probably be passed this spring. It actually expands on the violence in the workplace legislation, where all workplaces have to have a policy. They need to get to the table to try to resolve and address it."

Library patrons/members of the public are cited in the survey as those most responsible for the verbal abuse, sexual harassment and violence in the workplace. Respondents said that mental health and addictions were the most common reasons for increased workplace violence.

Henley stated that since the pandemic, mental illness has increased substantially. "Addictions are on the rise and homelessness is on the rise, and libraries are a public place and people with mental illness as well as addictions and homelessness, do utilize libraries, because that's the only place that they can get some of the resources that they may need." 

In terms of possible solutions, 44 respondents suggested better training for staff, particularly on de-escalation and dealing with mental health challenges, supportive managers, additional library staff, zero tolerance for violence, and social workers at some branches.

Respondents to the survey cited bathroom checks as one reason for increased workplace violence.

Lori Johb, President of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, said that during the pandemic, many centres did not have access to public washrooms. "Pre-COVID they had washrooms that were designated for people that needed them that might not have a regular place to go. So public libraries that were open were seen as a safe place where they would be able to access a washroom. I think that brings them into the building and that's where things go from there."

She said that understaffing and shortages in libraries are problems as well, and adequate staff would help people to work safely.

Johb added that we need to not only make it into law that every workplace has a workplace violence policy, but there needs to be follow-up and ensuring that it's an effective policy and that employees are aware of it and know where to find it.

Discover Weyburn reached out to the Southeast Regional Library, but they declined to comment.