New York, NY – Council Members Francisco Moya (D-Corona) and Diana Ayala (D-East Harlem, Bronx) have introduced two new bills aimed at uplifting struggling security officers working long hours at privately run, but city-funded homeless shelters.
These shelter security officers often work in risky environments, are highly susceptible to COVID-19 infections and suffer from improper training, low wages and a lack of benefits.
“We have to respect the dignity of all workers,” said Moya said during a recent online conference sponsored by 32BJ SEIU. “We have to stand with these workers who are predominantly brown and black and serve mostly black and brown New Yorkers. We will not quietly accept the conditions that they face. We will not accept these private contractors taking public dollars and then paying their workers wages without meaningful benefits.”
Moya wants to provide security guards at private homeless shelters with a prevailing wage comparable to what security officers at city-run shelters earn.
Ayala shared Moya’s sentiments that security guards deserve fair wages, equitable benefits, decent healthcare and better training to better serve some of the more challenging shelter clientele.
“This bill will require that shelter operators will have security officers that receive 40-hours of training after they are hired and that training must consist of 10-hours of shelter specific training,” Ayala said. “One hour of which would be dedicated to sexual harassment prevention, specific to interactions with populations they encounter during work and de-escalation techniques for individuals experiencing mental health [problems], emergencies or a crisis.”
Unfortunately, according to Ayala, security guards presently lack many of the tools needed to keep both themselves and the most vulnerable populations safe.
Denis Johnston vice-president of 32BJ SEIU’s Security Division agrees with the council members.
“Workers have been enduring a whole lot,” Johnston said. “There has been tremendous hardship during this coronavirus pandemic and even before the pandemic because minimum wage jobs without benefits make it extremely hard for workers to support their families and get ahead in this incredibly expensive city.”
Charmaine Lathan and Eva Conyers, who are both Black women, talked about their experiences working in the field as shelter security officers, as well as their own lives as unhoused individuals.
“Ironically, I ended up living in a shelter after I lost the housing that I needed when I started working full-time to take care of my family,” said Lathan, a mother of three. “Living on the inside, I try to help the residents at the shelter where I live.”
According to Lathan, many shelter clients grapple with trying to secure adequate healthcare for themselves and their families.
“My family and I have health coverage because I qualify for Medicaid — but then [there] are workers who don’t qualify for certain health benefits and so they have to pay out of pocket,” Lathan said. “It is hard for them when they have children.”
Many of Lathan’s full-time co-workers must still choose between rent, childcare and healthcare. They simply cannot afford all three.
“When we are exposed to a deadly disease, we should not have to worry about whether or not if we can get health coverage or medical coverage,” Lathan said. “Getting the same wages as the DHS security workers will help out a lot, because I can get unemployment and, for the other workers, they’ll have extra money for childcare and to pay for the certain things that they need.”
Before working in private security, Lathan worked as a security guard at the Parks Department, where she received training on how to engage the public, a skill that she says some of her current co-workers are, indeed, lacking.
“I was working at a shelter but I was laid off. There was a conflict of interest for me to work there as well as to live there,” said Conyers, who worked at a shelter in Lower Manhattan for a few weeks. “Before then, I was working at the Best Western at JFK for nine months.”
Conyers became homeless after she left her domestic partner, but despite working full-time and putting in overtime — she still did not have enough to support herself.
“I still didn’t get an apartment on my own despite working in the system,” said Conyers. “I worked the overnight shift at the shelter and was told we need to stand all night so that we could be at attention, which puts a lot of wear and tear on our bodies. These jobs are tough. We live paycheck-to-paycheck and worry about getting sick every day.”
Conyers currently lives with her son’s family in Harlem and does not have healthcare.
“Making the same as other security officers will help a lot,” said Conyers. “Some of my co-workers were able to get access to Medicaid, but that is not right for someone working full-time. I’m without healthcare coverage because I cannot afford what it costs to pay premiums and co-pays.”
Homelessness and the lack of healthcare is the reality that many security officers face, according to Conyers.
Ayala’s own son — a cancer survivor who worked in the security field for a decade — struggled to maintain a steady career in private security and was laid off before ultimately choosing a different career path.
“He had bone cancer in his leg and had to stand long hours,” Ayala said. “He had to miss work without the added benefit of health insurance. He was working long hours for poor wages. Those were the experiences he had in this field, which is unfortunate because it was a field that he loved.”
Along with training, the new bills, if approved, will help security officers like Lathan and Conyers earn a city worker’s wage, which is $18.45/hour, and comes with comprehensive family healthcare.