Public and Association libraries have questions about making policies creating conditions that must be met for library staff to return to work. Can they set policies that exclude vulnerable employees from being able to return to work? Can they set policies requiring non-vulnerable employees to return to work?
I had initially considered bundling this question with another submission about temporary actions or policies during COVID-19. After all, both questions relate to policy, and a big goal of “Ask the Lawyer” is to provide legal information efficiently.
But after drafting that answer, and considering this question further, I did away with that notion. The member has isolated an incredibly critical concern about employee/employer safety and authority. It is a question that demands—and deserves—its own consideration.
But before we dive into the legalities, let's consider the practical implications of the member’s question. Why would an employer want to “exclude vulnerable employees” from the work site? On the flip side, why would an employer want to set policies “requiring” a class of employee termed “non-vulnerable” to return to work?
Near as I can figure, the employer would want to do this to promote safety; a laudable goal.
However, that is not precisely the approach an employer in New York State is empowered to take.
Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and the New York Human Rights Law (“HRL”), employers are barred from discriminating against employees on the basis of real or perceived disability. This means that a NY employer who knows—or suspects—an employee might be particularly “vulnerable” (in this case, to COVID-19, but in other cases, due to pregnancy, or other medical conditions), is barred from simply labeling that employee “vulnerable” and taking steps to limit or change the terms of their employment on the basis of that conclusion.
Rather, disability law is set up to empower employees to identify their needs, and then—under the most confidential circumstances possible—work with their employer to receive reasonable accommodations in consideration of those needs.
For example, a person whose medical history means that they might be more vulnerable to COVID-19 would work with their medical provider to provide documentation setting forth the risks and requesting a reasonable accommodation on the basis of those risks.
Employers are always welcome to let employees know the ways in which they may request accommodations. For instance, as libraries, museums, and archives consider limited or full reopening, employers can transmit those plans to their employees, and invite them to submit any request for accommodations based on the anticipated additional exposure to on-site visitors.
Think of it in the same way your institution might think of planning a large event that would invite the maximum number of people possible to your library or a rented venue. When planning for an event that will attract a large number of people, almost every institution will consider the need to accommodate people who use mobility devices. They might not contact those people in advance, even if they know they're coming…rather, the event will be planned with those accommodations in mind.
A good example of this, of relevance to the current COVID-19 crisis, is an employee with a respiratory disability. As we know, people who have had respiratory illnesses in the past may be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 now. These are people who may request accommodations—potentially including the ability to work off-site—based on a disability (a good list of accommodations for respiratory issues can be found here, on the Job Accommodation Network).
So, with all that being said, the answer to the member’s questions (Can they set policies that exclude vulnerable employees from being able to return to work? Can they set policies requiring non-vulnerable employees to return to work?) is: NOT AS SUCH.
Employers can most certainly, when otherwise allowed by law, policy, contract, and Executive Order, require employees to return to work. After that…
Once an employer is able/decides to re-open, in addition to any re-opening conditions, the employer must consider any requests for reasonable accommodations. This could absolutely include modifications for those whose disabilities render them vulnerable to COVID-19. The employer can even generally pre-plan to offer those modifications. Or they can make working from home, or working on-site, optional (if the work can, in the sole determination of the employer, still be done). But what they can’t do is pre-sort their employees by “vulnerability.”
There is one final critical point to make here, at this time (May 19, 2020).
Institutions re-opening as part of “NY Forward,” may be required to monitor the health of their employees in a way that typically would seem intrusive, and in some contexts, would even be illegal.
For example, here is a sample of the monitoring required under NY Forward, taken from a sample safety plan. NOTE: this is taken from the NYForward’s Phase One Retail Summary, and is provided as an example, only:
Employees who are sick should stay home or return home, if they become ill at work.
[Employers must] [i]mplement mandatory health screening assessment (e.g. questionnaire, temperature check) before employees begin work each day and for essential visitors (but not customers), asking about (1) COVID-19 symptoms in past 14 days, (2) positive COVID-19 test in past 14 days, and/or (3) close contact with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 case in past 14 days.
Assessment responses must be reviewed every day and such review must be documented.
Employees who present with COVID-19 symptoms should be sent home to contact their health care provider for medical assessment and COVID-19 testing. If tested positive, employee may only return completing a 14-day quarantine. Employees who present with no symptoms but have tested positive in past 14 days may only return to work after completing a 14-day quarantine.
As stated, this is the procedure for Phase 1 re-opening of limited retail operations. When will libraries subject to closure in NY be able to re-open under NY Forward, and under what terms? As I write this, the New York Library Association, NYLA, has this on their COVID-19 page, which states:
With input from our partners from the Public Library System Directors Organization (PULISDO), NYLA has been advocating for libraries to be permissively included in phase two. This would allow libraries to be a phased re-opening processed, to be determined at the local level, as early as when their region enters Phase Two. The decision on when, as well as the steps and procedures for re-opening, are best determined locally, and in conjunction with the local library system and county Department of Health.
This is a critical service to association and public libraries by NYLA, and every board and director should be monitoring this site for updates.
Of course, some libraries may have determined that the current workforce restrictions don’t apply to them at all (that they are exempt right along with school districts and local governments). And it is possible some libraries and museums, affiliated with larger institutions, will not be able to open until their region hits “Phase Four” (covering educational institutions). And it may be that by the point libraries are given the go-ahead, the emergency has abated to the point where monitoring of employees won’t be required.
But any library contemplating opening, in addition to being ready to consider ADA accommodations for those more vulnerable to COVID-19, needs to be considering these possible employee monitoring requirements, as well as the need to adopt any NY Forward-required Safety Plan, or similar documentation showing they are taking defined, affirmative steps to protect employee and public safety.
Public and association libraries developing the policies they need to re-open have a large, complex task before them. Thank you for a question that explores a critical consideration of that work.
 Just to emphasize: NYLA is a critical resource at this time and all libraries should be monitoring this page daily for updates.
[Note; the text of this question was edited to remove the precise dates of scheduled election and notice.]
Executive Order 202.13 states:
"Circulation, filing, and collection of any designating petitions, or independent nominating petitions for any office that would otherwise be circulated or filed pursuant to the Election Law, Education Law or any other consolidated law for any office commencing March 31, 2020 are hereby postponed.
Any school board, library board, or village election scheduled to take place in April or May of 2020 is hereby postponed until at least June 1, 2020, and subject to further directive as to the timing, location or manner of voting for such elections."
My question is: our legal notices had been published indicating an open trustee position and petition deadlines were due March XX (none were filed) and the budget vote is April XX. The question is do we have to do a legal notice that the vote is postponed and do new legal notices once we have a date? At the same time can we reopen the opportunity for people to file a petition to run for the board?
This question is from a school district public library. Before answering it, I called the library director who sent it in.
Why? Well, first, I wanted to introduce myself. When a question has a lot of nuance and potential long-term ramifications, I like the member to know the answer comes from a real human being, not just a faceless attorney in Buffalo, NY.
Second, I wanted to check in on some details. As other school district public libraries can attest to, the minutia of elections and budget votes can get very technical—as well as personal (and sometimes passionate). Getting those details right is both an art and a science.
And finally...I'm not gonna lie. Sitting alone in my office, with my treasured staff working from home, cut off from our normal busy but generally cheery atmosphere, I might have been a tad lonely. Although anyone who works with me will tell you that half the time I am working in an introverted and ADD-infused cloud, four weeks of pandemic isolation have taken their toll. It was nice to call the member and connect at a human level.
How did the conversation go? I'll keep that part confidential.
Let’s take a brief aside to review the “Ask the Lawyer” model.
For members who use “Ask the Lawyer,” there are often two concrete results from the submission of the question:
The most common result is a post to the “Recently Asked Questions” (“RAQ”) site, which will contain generic guidance with no identifying details, so a general assessment of the legal issue can be shared with the largest possible impacted library community.
The second result, which doesn't occur for every question (but it's still pretty frequent) is a “confidential memo” just for the member and their council. This “confidential memo” supplements the general input with confidential legal advice, and lets us address any unique details that pertain to only that member.
This is how the 3R’s maximize the resources (legal fees) used to get the legal guidance and advice, while also enabling timely services to their members. And as I’ve reviewed, it is also how lonely attorneys can occasionally arrange a phone call to socialize about a legal need during pandemic-imposed isolation.
So, again…how did the conversation with the member go? As I said, it’s confidential. But let's just say, when I call a librarian, I expect some good conversation, and this member did not disappoint.
And with that, here is my generic “Recently Asked Questions” input on this situation:
The first priority in assessing any matter related to an election or budget vote is to consider any past extraordinary details—such as a previous controversy or contested procedures. As they say in the “Music Man”: You gotta know the territory. If there has been any past issue or hostility, planning to navigate a postponed election with those sensitivities in mind is wise.
Next (and this is essential), is setting up to ensure consistent and well-communicated support about the election from leaders and stakeholders: in this case, the board, the staff, the library’s system, the local school district, and (even if the election is not in their purview) the county Board of Elections. This includes communication about the postponement, and the re-set proceedings.
Why is this a critical step? When you're sailing into uncharted waters, it's good to sail with a fleet, and to cross-check each other’s navigation.
And finally (but critically), before making any announcements or plans, check your charter, bylaws, and date of formation. Some libraries will have provisions in them relevant to this situation, and per sub-section 8 of Section 260 of the NY Education Law (controlling school district public library elections), a library chartered before April 30, 1971 may have a bit more leeway in these matters, as a matter of law. Further, your library may have its own notice requirements or procedures, on top of the base-line legal requirements.
Now, as to the present circumstances, let’s parse the relevant content of Executive Order 202.12:
Circulation, filing, and collection of any designating petitions, or independent nominating petitions for any office that would otherwise be circulated or filed pursuant to the Election Law, Education Law or any other consolidated law for any office commencing March 31, 2020 are hereby postponed.
Any school board, library board, or village election scheduled to take place in April or May of 2020 is hereby postponed until at least June 1, 2020, and subject to further directive as to the timing, location or manner of voting for such elections.
As if this whole exercise isn’t going to be complicated enough, the first thing I need to note is that, under Education Law Section 260 (sub-section 7), school district public libraries have between April 1 to the end of June to hold their elections. So just be aware: EO 202.13 did not delay all scheduled elections (only those set for “April or May). So, for this answer, we’ll only address elections set for April or May.
Next, we need to check in not only with Education Law Section 260, but its companion Section 2018, which addresses the filing of petitions:
Each petition shall be filed in the office of the clerk of the district between the hours of nine a.m. and five p.m., not later than the thirtieth day preceding the school meeting or election at which the candidates nominated are to be elected. [emphasis added]
And of course, Education law Section 2004, which requires notice be given:
“…at least forty-five days before said meeting, in two newspapers if there shall be two, or in one newspaper if there shall be but one, having general circulation within such district. But if no newspaper shall then have general circulation therein, the said notice shall be posted in at least twenty of the most public places in said district forty-five days before the time of such meeting.”
So, with all that, what are the answers to the member’s questions?
First question: Do we have to do a legal notice that the vote is postponed and do new legal notices once we have a date?
My assessment is that the Executive Order is sufficient notice that the vote is postposed. However, once the proceedings can be re-scheduled, a library will need to publish new notices. Further, it is important to note that the EO hints there will be “further directive as to the timing, location or manner of voting for such elections” coming from the Governor (or perhaps guidance from NYSED, upon direction of the Governor).
I imagine such “further directive” will take into account that typically, libraries must give at least 45 days’ notice. But in any event, right now, school district public library elections are in a holding pattern, and the boards and leadership need to stay alert for further directions on next steps.
That said, a discussion with stakeholders, to ensure your library is ready to set its proceeding when the time comes, might be wise. This could include a notice about the postponed proceedings, and direction as to where to look for next steps.
Here is a template:
Consistent with Executive Order 202.13, the [NAME] Library’s elections and budget vote are postponed, and the library is awaiting further direction from the state regarding rescheduling. The Library will publish further notice and information to the public regarding the election as soon as we are able. Questions about elections in [COUNTY] County can be directed to the [COUNTY] County Board of Elections at (###)###-####.
Second question: Can we reopen the opportunity for people to file a petition to run for the board?
This is fascinating.
The way I see it, 202.13’s “postponement” of elections means the thirty-day deadline for filing a designating petition will automatically be re-set to thirty days before whatever the new election will be. This is because under Education Law Sections 260(8) and 2018, the deadline for filing is not a fixed date, but a deadline calculated based on the date of the election. So, I think being ready to ask people to step up and get designated so you have sufficient nominees—especially if there were none duly submitted by the last deadline—is a good idea.
Of course, right now all collection and filing of designating petitions are also “postponed” (see the first excerpted paragraph of the Executive Order). And the deadlines for petitions are going to be tough to hit before the July 1 statutory deadline. And at some point, there may be a decision that previous submissions will not be re-opened.
The next “directive” on this issue will have to tackle the issue of meeting the notification and petition filing deadlines, as well as the implications for those libraries that were in the notice period, and those that were not.
This is where conferring with the local Board of Elections officials, and the school district, even if they do not oversee your library’s elections, will be so critical. They will have the insight and probably some inside information to share about how this will be configured. And for those libraries with a lawyer, this is the time to involve them (before final decisions are made).
To put this in context, right now although critical, the election is probably only one of the numerous high priority issues your library board is considering. First and foremost is likely the on-going well-being of the library and its role in the anticipated recovery of your community.
With that in mind, I suggest any board facing this situation also review the guidance on using a crisis management for public libraries, and factor the monitoring and messaging around this issue into their response plan.
If and when we get an update or “further directives,” we’ll post any update to this answer.
 Has anyone ever done a poll to see how many librarians have been serenaded with the “Marion,” song? And taken a further poll to see if it is now regarded as harassment?
My question is: do public libraries have any legal obligation to collect emergency contact information for children (age 17 and under) attending library programs without a parent or caregiver present/on the premises? Our library is located on the campus of a school district, and we have access to the school district's library automation system, in addition to our own, so we could easily and quickly locate contact information for the parents/caregivers of children who attend our programs in the event of a medical or other type of emergency situation. We already have an unattended minor policy as well. Our Library Board wants to make sure that we are in compliance with both Federal and New York State law on this issue. Thank you.
This question is rather like asking an astronautical engineer: When on a spacewalk, are there any safety procedures specifically related to securing my helmet as I exit the airlock?
Such a question could inspire an initial reaction like: Safety concerns? In SPACE??? Blazing comets, the safety concerns start the moment you blast off!
But upon reflecting on the actual question, the calm, composed answer might be: “To ensure integrity of the pressure garment assembly, double-check the neck-dam’s connection to the helmet’s attaching ring.”
Lawyers get this way addressing questions related to children and liability. Our first reaction is to think about everything that can go wrong. But then we calm down and focus on the specific issue at hand.
So, here is my calm, composed answer to the member’s very specific question:
There are two potential instances where a public library offering a program for unaccompanied minors might be obligated by law to collect emergency contact information.
If the program the library is hosting is a camp required by law to have a “Safety Plan,” applicable regulations arguably require that the library gather the child’s emergency medical treatment and contact information.
If the library is paying a child performer as part of an event, the law requires that the library must collect the child performer’s parent/guardian information before the performance.
Other than the above instances, while such a practice may be required by an insurance carrier, a landlord, or event sponsor, there is no state law or regulation that makes collecting emergency contact information a specific requirement of a public library.
I do have two additional considerations, though.
“Emergency contact” information provided by the parents/guardians, in a signed document drafted expressly for your library, is generally the best course of action when welcoming groups of unaccompanied minors for events not covered by your library’s usual policies.
I write this because Murphy’s Law (which is not on the bar exam, but remains a potent force in the world) will ensure the one time there is an incident at your youth program, the district’s automation system will be down.
Which brings us to the….
Libraries and educational institutions sharing automation systems must make sure that such data exchange does not violate either FERPA (which bars educational institutions from sharing certain student information), or CPLR 4509 (which bars libraries from sharing user information).
Emergency contact information maintained by a school is potentially a FERPA-protected education record. If FERPA-protected, it is illegal for any third party—such as a public library—to access it unless there is an agreement in place with certain required language AND the library’s use of the information is in the students’ “legitimate educational interests.” 
Of course, given the right circumstances, meeting these criteria is perfectly possible. In fact, such agreements can be a routine part of a school’s operations. But just like with a space helmet before leaving the airlock, its best to confirm that everything is in place before you take the next step.
Thanks for a thought-provoking question.
 I imagine aeronautical engineers swear like the rest of us, but I like to image they sound like characters Golden Age comic books.
 Thanks, NASA.gov!
 I know this question isn’t really about camps, but libraries do host them. And since the NY State Health Department’s template for a licensed camp’s “Safety Plan” includes eliciting emergency contact/treatment info, I have to include this consideration. For a breakdown of what types of camps requires licenses, visit https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/3603/
 This is a requirement of Title 12 NYCRR § 186-4.4. Since the library would also need said child performer’s license to perform, this requirement would not likely be missed! I also appreciate that this example is on the far side of what this question is actually about.
 Call your carrier to check. They may even have preferred language for your library to use when crafting registration documents.
 The definition of “education records” under FERPA (and its many exceptions) is here: https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div5&node=34:18.104.22.168.33#se34.1.99_13. Interestingly, a student’s name, phone number, and address—three critical components of an emergency contact form—are potentially not FERPA-protected “education records” as they may be considered “directory information” if specifically listed in a public notice from the school, as required by FERPA Section 99.37. FERPA violations can turn on these small details!
 What language is that? Under FERPA Section 99.31, an educational agency or institution may disclose such information to another party (like a library on its campus) if that party is: 1) performing a function for which the school would otherwise use employees; 2) the library directly controls the contractor’s use and maintenance of the records; and 3) the contractor is required to not further disclose the records. This formula can also be found in the link in footnote 4.
 Who says that simile can’t make a second appearance?!