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32BJ Rallies Behind NYC Security Officers Suffering Under Unequal ‘Caste System’

June 25, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Chanting “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” about 60 32BJ SEIU members rallied outside a Manhattan homeless shelter June 24, demanding that privately run shelters that receive city funds pay their security officers the same wages that guards at city-run shelters get.

“This double standard is unfair.” — 32BJ vice president Denis Johnston

“This double standard is unfair,” 32BJ vice president Denis Johnston, head of the union’s commercial security division, told the crowd outside the MAve Hotel at Madison Avenue and East 27th Street. The city has been renting rooms to house the homeless in the 72-bed hotel, upstairs from a storefront psychic and a vegan juice bar, since 2016.

The union is trying to organize the 2,000 to 3,000 security officers at the roughly 600 homeless shelters run by nonprofit organizations. Guards at shelters directly run by the city, along with those hired by contractors such as Allied to work at city agencies, won a prevailing-wage deal in 2009, Johnston told LaborPress after the rally. They made as little as $9 or $10 an hour before it, he said.

Union security officers now make about $18.50 plus about $6 in benefits, he added. But nonunion guards working at privately run shelters make the $15 minimum wage or maybe a nickel above it, and have health insurance with high premiums and copayments. In the midst of a pandemic, he said, it’s “unconscionable” that they don’t have adequate health-care coverage.

“This is a caste system, brothers and sisters,” Johnston told the rally. “This is a two-tier system.”

“I know how vulnerable [shelter] residents are, because I am one of them,” Charmaine Latham, a security officer at a privately run shelter in the Bronx, told the rally. The 43-year-old mother of three said her family now lives in a shelter, because she lost her apartment when her housing aid got cut off after she started working full-time.

She likes her job, she said, but “I have coworkers who don’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t afford health care. We need to know that we can support our families.”

Latham told LaborPress that she has adequate personal protective equipment on the job and that residents are wearing masks in the shelter. However, 32BJ has filed a complaint with state Attorney General Letitia James’ office that security officers at more than 20 privately run shelters have had problems getting proper protective gear. Seventeen guards who are 32BJ members have died from the COVID-19 virus, Johnston said, including seven who worked in homeless shelters. 

City Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan) told the rally that as the city attempts to emerge from the epidemic, “people are talking about creating jobs, but we’re talking about creating good jobs.” It’s hard to ignore the racial and economic inequalities, she added, “when a majority-minority workforce earns poverty wages on the city’s dime.”

I have coworkers who don’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t afford health care. We need to know that we can support our families.” — Charmaine Latham, security officer.

The mayor’s press office did not respond to a message from LaborPress.

City Councilmembers Francisco Moya (D-Queens) and Diana Ayala (D-Manhattan/Bronx) are considering introducing legislation that would extend the prevailing-wage requirement to city-funded private shelters, a 32BJ spokesperson said.

“You have security officers doing the same exact work, facing the same occupational hazards,” Johnston told LaborPress. “They should be compensated at the same standard.”

June 25, 2020

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