Hundreds of SF city workers take on ‘emergency’ roles

Librarians, election office employees do double duty during pandemic

Election staffers aiding the homeless. City public works employees building new medical facilities. Librarians delivering food to the hungry.

Hundreds of San Francisco city government workers have been drafted, in essence, as “disaster service workers,” seeing The City slot them into roles on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A little-known clause in a city worker’s hiring papers allows San Francisco to require them to aid city efforts during a disaster. While most often seen as an essential safety net for our City by the Bay’s most notorious danger — earthquakes — the government function was activated when Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in late February.

And while technically yes, it is a requirement, so far The City has only asked certain types of workers to step forward. By and large, those who feel they’re least vulnerable have “volunteered” to take the risk of working out in the public, alongside the already stalwart frontline staff like nurses, police, and transit operators.

Many of these workers are quietly filling support roles.

“Behind every hospital bed is an IT person, a public works person, a human resources person,” Mary Ellen Carroll, executive director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management, told me.

“There’s an army of people behind that who I see every day, and the average person doesn’t,” Carroll said.

Yael Schwartz normally manages the newspaper and magazine section at the San Francisco Main Library. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Yael Schwartz normally manages the newspaper and magazine section at the San Francisco Main Library. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

That “army” is largely serving in a few concentrated places: staffing the emergency operations center coordinating disaster planning throughout the city, supporting hospitals and clinics, monitoring “alternative housing sites” for the homeless and other housing for vulnerable people, and last, but certainly not least, providing needed sustenance through the San Francisco Marin Food Bank.

It’s there at the food bank on 900 Pennsylvania Street — and at satellite food pantries throughout San Francisco — where roughly 75 librarians have found themselves since April 6, ensuring The City’s seniors and low-income families have food on their plates.

Tuesday morning I found myself there, too, watching a bevy of these librarians in gloves and face masks bustling about under a 60-foot long white tent, packing paper bags to the brim with potatoes, carrots, pork chops and rice. “Under the Boardwalk” was blaring on a loudspeaker as I walked in, and they all worked while maintaining a healthy social distance almost in rhythm to the music.

My first stop was Alan Wong, a San Francisco native and graduate of Lincoln High School, who on any normal, pre-pandemic day would find himself helping a largely Latinx population check out books at San Francisco Public Library’s Excelsior branch. I’ve been there before, and noted how there seems to be more families there than the usual library branch, with children who are joyously riotous.

“It’s loud and there are a lot of kids,” he agreed dryly.

Wong told me he gets his workout for the day bagging groceries. But he’s glad to help his fellow San Franciscans, many of whom may be his library regulars.

“The population staying at home” under the shelter-in-place order, he said, “they’re the same patrons we see every day.”

Katy McKnight, director of community engagement at the food bank, told me the library staffers came at a time of dire need — the food bank lost nearly 2,500 volunteers overnight after the shelter-in-place orders were announced. Those are folks who normally support the food bank’s warehouse on Pennsylvania, and pantries in neighborhoods across San Francisco.

While many new volunteers came out after a call for support, McKnight said, the librarians form a unique, dependable backbone of workers who don’t need to be re-trained every day. They also had unique insights into the operation that only librarians could bring, right as the food bank changed its operation to serve people sheltering-in-place.

“We had never bagged groceries to this scale,” McKnight said, but the librarians, schooled in the Dewey decimal system, put their organizing skills to work.

They helped figure out more efficient ways to organize the assembly line for packing food bags, and the right number of bags to place in each bin to match the capacity of delivery trucks. Library staff who regularly drive books between branches suddenly became bagged grocery drivers, serving roughly 1,200 seniors daily with delivery groceries.

“Library staff are always ready to ‘optimize,’” librarian Yael Schwartz told me, as she packed potatoes into a paper bag. “It’s like (having) built-in quality-control.”

Together with the families and everyday San Franciscans flooding food pantries across The City, the San Francisco Marin Food Bank is feeding at least 15,000 households. Staff told me those pantries are feeding 10,000 more people than they were the week before, no doubt due to the wave of newly unemployed people among the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other efforts to feed the hungry are also ongoing. On Tuesday Mayor Breed announced $1 million in Give2SF funds, a charity organized by The City, to help fund San Francisco’s existing food security programs.

Despite all these efforts, the fact that we need them at all ignited the ire of Schwartz, who usually works at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch. As she hefted a paper bag filled to the brim with vegetables, rice and pork chops into a plastic bin, she praised her colleagues while lamenting the broader dilemma.

In such an absurdly wealthy city, she said, “It’s a vivid, heartbreaking problem to me.” The ongoing hunger in San Francisco — even pre-COVID-19 — “that’s a crime.”

But at least during this pandemic fewer San Franciscans may go hungry, at least partially thanks to hands that usually pack books into shelves turning to pack groceries into bags, instead.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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