They have been spat on, accosted by Covid-19 deniers and assaulted for merely enforcing state rules.
When the Covid-19 pandemic closed down California’s offices, malls and event spaces last year, nearly 200,000 security officers stayed behind as the rest of the state sheltered in place. They kept shut down venues safe while enforcing a panoply of rules at the few that stayed open. Then came the protests, and the election lies – turning an already fraught situation even more tense.
“It’s a powder keg right now, it’s crazy,” said Robert Branch, the southern California industry vice-president for SEIU-USWW, the state’s local union of security officers. “Officers were already dealing with issues, now they’re confronting people who may want to fight and could possibly be Covid positive.”
Security officers across California say their jobs in the past year have become increasingly dangerous, while they haven’t garnered the recognition bestowed on essential workers in grocery stores, healthcare or the food industry.
There have been reports about security staff being assaulted for enforcing social distancing and the use of masks. One security officer died in a rightwing extremist attack on a federal building in Oakland during the George Floyd protests. Many officers lack access to PPE, and none receive hazard pay.
“We get cussed out every day, treated like shit by people who will straight-up say ‘I’m not wearing no fucking mask,’” said Joy Brooks, who in December was working as a security guard at Oakland’s public hospital. “On top of that, we don’t get treated like we’re a part of the team even though we’re in contact with the patients just like we’re nurses.”
Brooks, 32, is contracted through Allied Universal, a large security agency, to supervise the security staff at Highland hospital. Before the pandemic, she escorted patients, got nurses to sign off on paperwork and interacted with the hospital’s patients and visitors. Once the pandemic began and hospital safety protocols changed, she and her colleagues started taking temperatures, handing out clean masks and controlling visitors’ movement throughout the hospital.
Brooks worried her tasks weren’t being adapted enough to limit exposure to Covid patients. Concerned about exposing her 14-year-old daughter to the virus, she said she started limiting their personal contact last year. Instead of sharing meals and watching television together, they stayed in their respective rooms, and relied more on their cellphones to communicate even when at home.
When Brooks contracted Covid, she completely segregated from her daughter for a while. Speaking while she was in isolation, she said she was looking for a new job. “I’m gonna be looking for an assignment where I’m just watching cameras or something, because right now I’m scared to death of going back to work,” she said.
Highland hospital said in a statement it follows CDC protocols, and directed questions to Allied Universal. The security company said in a statement they were giving out millions of masks and large amounts of hand sanitizer to officers and “are doing everything possible to deal with the personal impact the virus is having on our employees and their families”.
At least 90 security officers have succumbed to Covid-19 between March and December 2020, according to state data compiled by researchers with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). It is unclear whether all of these deaths are the result of workplace exposure, but, given the amount of time security officers spend in high-traffic areas, transmission while on the job probably accounts for some of the deaths, said Dr Yea-Hung Chen, who led the UCSF study.
Frank Cedillo is posted outside of a Food 4 Less grocery store in Anaheim where, until December, he maintained order in the line outside the store and enforced mask-wearing.
Cedillo said that early in the pandemic, he had to source his own masks when they were nearly impossible to come by and was only able to get one from a local woman who was sewing and donating masks to frontline workers. Cedillo suffers from diabetes and asthma – conditions that put him at high risk of developing Covid-19 complications – and though he was interacting with the public more than ever, he said, he faced apathy and ultimatums from his management when he asked for things like masks and gloves.
“Generally you’d expect the employer to help, but mine told me I would be fine without the mask and if I kept complaining I would be replaced,” he said.
Cedillo said his days were filled with chasing off loiterers and watching for shoplifters until one day in December, when a man whom Cedillo had previously confronted returned with two other people, and one of them pulled a knife and threatened to stab him. Cedillo was transferred to a new location that is not open to the public. But he said the dangers he and other officers face remain unaddressed.
“People hit us and pull weapons on us all the time but nothing ever happens,” Cedillo continued. “We’re all overworked and underpaid and still nowhere – not in the media or government – is anyone saying anything.”
“Sometimes I get a little peeved when people just focus on grocery workers and mail carriers. I wonder, ‘What about us?’” said Branch, the SEIU-USWW vice-president.
Branch works the graveyard shift in a downtown Los Angeles office building that is mostly empty now that remote work is the norm. He has a “sweet position”, he said, and has a director who advocates for him and his co-workers to have all the masks, hand sanitizer and gloves they need. However, Branch said that this is not the case for most other security officers and compared the situation for many to “when teachers have to buy additional supplies”.
We’re all overworked and underpaid and still nowhere – not in the media or government – is anyone saying anything
The contributions of security officers have always been easy to miss. They are often hired through contract companies, with job assignments that can change week to week. Turnover in the industry is high, and the vast majority of officers aren’t represented by a union.
But there are more security officers working in California than in any other state, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 580,000 people in the state hold an active security officer license, according to the state’s bureau of security and investigative services. With a wide range of responsibilities, their ages range from those fresh out of high school to senior citizens.
California’s state health department has issued workplace regulations related to Covid-19, but in the security field, they are often applied inconsistently based on the size and individual will of a company that contracts security officers, security guards say.
Dr Anthony Iton, a public health expert who has run departments in California and Connecticut, said security officers could benefit from “a societal stamp of approval”.
“The acknowledgment strengthens their argument for hazard pay and investments to make their workplaces safer,” Iton said. “It also raises their status as a critical element of our society. They are heroes just like healthcare workers are heroes.”
“I don’t see anyone raising the flag for us,” said Regina McMillian, a 58-year-old guard who has been working in the industry for four decades and is a member of the SEIU-USWW bargaining committee and is a shop steward who files grievances on behalf of union members. “It’s like we’re dead to the public. But that’s why we need to take a stand: because we’re very much alive.”
McMillian monitors patients on psychiatric and medical holds at a northern California hospital. With decades of experience as a guard she can “do the job with her eyes closed”, she said, but the pandemic has contributed to higher turnover and anxiety among officers who are new to working in hospitals, especially those in the emergency department.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, McMillian said, officers told her they would have to use their vacation days or file worker’s compensation and disability claims to get time off if they contracted Covid. She learned that hospital and security agencies across the state were slow to recognize that typical tasks for officers now carried more risk and to address the concerns of officers who interact with people who may be infected. “The adrenaline is flowing more for the officers and the mood has become, ‘Damn I don’t wanna catch Covid. Should I find another job?’” she said.
McMillian recently got vaccinated through the vaccination program of the hospital she works at. She hopes her peers working in different settings will get the same opportunity. “It was offered to me and I took it,” McMillian said. “But I feel that all security officers – union or otherwise – should be offered the injection.”
Representatives for the field said they are working to get guards access to vaccines, just as they are continuing to battle for access to protective gear, as well as “hero pay” – the financial compensation cities throughout California have approved for grocery workers.
Neither the union for security officers nor any security trade associations are currently represented on the state’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee, the group that helps guide equity efforts in California’s vaccine distribution. Still, 1,500 unionized Los Angeles-based janitors, airplane workers and security officers –including Robert Branch – have been recently vaccinated through a partnership between SEIU-USWW, Governor Gavin Newsom’s office and Fema.
David Chandler, the president of the California Association of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards, and Associates (Calsaga), said his organization contacted Newsom about emergency action to protect security officers last March and received no response. Now that vaccine distribution is under way, this lack of communication from the capitol and evolving priorities in vaccine eligibility are making it even harder to advocate for those who remain in the field, Chandler said.
Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment on their communication with the trade association.
“It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the industry,” said Chandler, Calsaga’s president. “When businesses close they still want their buildings to be protected. We’re the boots on the ground, but it’s still unclear where we fit in among other frontline workers.”