New York — Under the best of circumstances, the city’s homeless shelters present difficult challenges for the security officers who work there. But as the Coronavirus pandemic rages, security guards working at privately-run city-funded shelters are being blocked from the basic right to take a paid sick day, forcing many to weigh their health and safety against their paycheck.
Seven officers filed formal complaints April 10 against their employers, Priority 1 Security Services and Sera Security Services, with the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection for multiple violations of the city’s paid sick leave law.
“I started working for Sera Security in 2015, and I have never once been paid for any sick time or any time I’ve taken off,” said Ronneil Booker, who until recently worked as a site supervisor at a shelter at 1145 Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, on a tele-presser call on Tuesday. “When I had to be with my wife in the hospital last month because she had a miscarriage and needed surgery, I requested a sick day, but have not been paid for it to this day. I know other co-workers who have the same situation. Some take paid sick days they are never paid for. Sometimes they are not allowed to take a sick day, or threatened with a write-up if they do.”
For Booker, the last straw was an incident on April 2, when he found out that one of the security officers at the shelter where he worked had been coming to work sick for three days, with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. “I made a judgment call and I told her to go home. I know she had been afraid to not get paid, but I needed to think of all the other workers, and the people we serve,” said Booker.
The account manager for the site told him that because he had sent her home, he would have to work a double shift. He refused, and was fired. “I understand that I and others are essential workers, but I could not risk my life and the lives of my wife and kids where I felt unsafe.”
Officers like Booker and others who filed complaints often lack access to meaningful health benefits. Daniel McKie, who worked for Priority One at a Queens shelter and says he is still owed by the company for over 40 hours of paid time off, pays $150 a week for health care premiums for his family.
In their complaints, the officers from Sera and Priority One stated that their employers have refused to pay them for sick days in a timely manner or at all, asking workers for medical documentation for one- or two-day absences, retaliating against workers who use sick time, and failing to inform workers of their rights under the city’s paid sick leave law.
“These officers keep the families that use the shelter system safe, and they deserve to be kept safe from the disease that has been taking the lives of hundreds of New Yorkers daily, and which is responsible to date for at least 23 deaths among people who use that system,” said Denis Johnston, Vice President of SEIU 32BJ and head of the New York Security Division for the union. “Union workers who have similar jobs receive better wages, employer-paid quality health care, and protections that mitigate the risks they are taking as they go to work every day.”
“Security officers in nonprofit shelters are on the front lines of COVID-19, serving some of the most at-risk New Yorkers. Now more than ever, we need to have their backs,” said Councilmember Francisco Moya, who represents several neighborhoods in Queens hard-hit by the Coronavirus, and is a member of the Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor. “I will continue to fight for these workers to have their basic rights respected, and to ensure they have access to affordable healthcare, meaningful paid leave, and workplace health and safety protections.”
Priority One employs approximately 180 security officers at shelters operated by by Children’s Community Services under contract with the NY Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Additionally, Sera employs nearly 500 security officers at shelter sites across the city, most of which are operated by Acacia Network Housing under contract with DHS.
“I represent the Bronx, which has more New Yorkers in shelters than any other borough. Our homeless clients and the dedicated staff who serve them are not expendable, and paid sick violations that jeopardize their health and safety need to stop immediately,” said Councilmember Diana Ayala. “We owe the workers who are keeping our safety net functioning every protection possible during this crisis. “
“As the Chair of the General Welfare Committee, I am deeply concerned about security guards in homeless shelters being denied paid sick time to which they are entitled,” said Councilmember Steve Levin. “These practices by Priority 1 and Sera Security endanger essential workers and vulnerable residents in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis. We must ensure that contractors in our shelters operate responsibly and comply with the city’s Paid Sick Law. “
The union and those who support these workers call for DCWP to launch a company-wide investigation of these security contractors’ compliance with NYC’s Paid Sick Leave Law on the basis of these complaints.
With over 175,000 members in eleven states and Washington, D.C., including 85,000 in New York, SEIU 32BJ is the largest property service workers union in the country.