According to 32BJ SEIU, the union that represents nearly 1,100 security officers, guards at shelters owned by private operators earn as little as the minimum wage. Many also don’t have access to health insurance.
While they receive training to obtain their license, they must pay out of pocket for a yearly eight-hour training to maintain their license. Security officers at facilities run by the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), meanwhile, receive 40 hours of training.
Denis Johnston, vice president of 32BJ and head of the union’s New York Security Division, said those disparities are caused by the unwillingness to provide industry-standard wages and benefits.
“These officers working in an environment that is challenging even in the best of times should not have to bear the extra burden of worrying whether their wages can support their families,” he said, “whether they can get medical care in the middle of a pandemic, or whether they have the tools to manage situations that arise with residents in crisis.”
Johnston noted that in 2009, former mayor Michael Bloomberg and former comptroller Bill Thompson increased the prevailing wage for publicly contracted security officers to $18.45 an hour. The guards were also given comprehensive health coverage through Empire BlueCross BlueShield.
The 32BJ official added that training is needed not just for career advancement, but for dealing with tough situations. He said mandating industry standards would be incredible for thousands of workers.
“They’re putting their lives in jeopardy just for going to work,” Johnston said. “This is an issue of dignity for thousands of workers.”
Councilman Francisco Moya introduced the first bill, which would require that officers at privately run shelters contracted with the city receive the prevailing wage for the industry.
“Frontline security officers put their health and safety on the line everyday,” he said. “They are essential workers and unsung heroes.”
Moya noted that it’s not just about compensation, but also about equity and justice. He said the industry is made up of predominantly Black and brown New Yorkers.
“Public money should never fund low-road jobs that exploit minority workers who put themselves at risk to protect New Yorkers in need,” he added.
The second piece of legislation, put forth by Manhattan Councilwoman Diana Ayala, would require 40 hours of training for security guards, which is modeled after the standard for city-run shelters. The trainings include conflict de-escalation and sexual harassment prevention.
“This legislation will ensure security guards are equipped with the tools they need to create a safe and welcoming environment,” she said. “Workforce training is one of the most critical parts of the job.”
Ayala said her son has worked for many years as a security guard, often at minimum wage. She said despite working long hours, he still struggled to pay his bills.
“So many Black and brown people work and are not compensated the way they should,” she added.
Charmaine Lathan, who has worked at a shelter on 29th Street in Manhattan for five months, said while she works full-time, she is also a shelter resident.
Lathan said her family has health care coverage through Medicaid, but other workers are not so lucky and often have to pay out-of-pocket for many expenses.
“When we’re being exposed to this deadly disease, we shouldn’t have to worry about having medical coverage,” she said. “It gets overwhelming sometimes.”
Lathan added that getting the same wages as DHS security workers would help her get her own apartment. The increased wages would also help to pay for other expenses like child care.
Eva Conyers, who recently worked at a shelter in Manhattan until she was laid off, also worked full time but was homeless. Prior to the Manhattan site, Conyers said she worked at the Best Western by JFK Airport for nine months.
Conyers has gone without health care coverage because she can’t afford premiums and copays.
“We worry about getting sick everyday,” she said, “but we keep going because we need to take care of our families.”