Guards hit streets

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More than 100 security guards from more than 20 buildings in the Financial District, including the Transamerica Building, participated in a three-day unfair-labor-practices strike before returning to work Sept. 27 as contract talks resumed.

After three months of working without a contract, security guards are seeking higher wages and access to affordable health care to be able to support their families, as well as proper training for the safety of buildings and their occupants.

Service Employees International Union Local 24/7 representatives were mostly pleased with the job action, although the union had to defend three guards who were locked out as the strike ended. Universal Protection Services had planned to permanently replace security officers Robert Ravare, Kevin Coleman, and Jesusa Villena, but the issue has since been resolved, and the three employees returned to work on the morning of Sept. 28.

Abbas Emady, a security guard for Universal, told the Guardian he resents security companies for not providing adequate training for their employees, which devalues the important role guards are likely to play in a disaster. And low wages and poor benefits exacerbate the problem by creating high turnover rates for guards.

"If there’s a terrorist attack or a fire, we’re the first to go," said Bobby Randall, who works for Securitas as a security guard at the 50 Fremont high-rise. Without sufficient training, security guards may have difficulty assisting police and firefighters in an emergency, a point the local police and firefighters unions reinforced with votes of support for the strike.

Security guards risk their lives to protect multibillion-dollar properties, yet they don’t receive the same wages or health coverage as janitors, window washers, parking attendants, or operating engineers who work in the same buildings. In fact, a security guard with two and half years of experience only makes $11.85 an hour, while a janitor with the same experience makes $17.05 an hour, according to the SEIU. A union-run "Justice for Janitors" organizing campaign a few years ago helped that group make progress.

"It’s an unacceptable double standard," SEIU Local 24/7 spokesperson Gina Bowers said.

Armando Yepez, who participated in the strike, told us he works two full-time jobs as a security guard, at a downtown high-rise and at a construction site, in order to pay for housing and other expenses. Yepez commutes between his home in Richmond and his job locations in San Francisco five times a week, leaving him with less than five hours of sleep each night.

Security officers often find themselves paying for medical expenses out of their own pockets because their health insurance does not cover all of their needs and does not provide family benefits.

On Jan. 1 security guards were offered a free but severely limited health plan with Aetna, which has a cap of $4,000 for outpatients. For Sue Trayling, a security guard working for Securitas, all it took was one night in the emergency room and a couple of doctor’s appointments to max out her Aetna plan. Trayling clocks in 421/2 hours a week yet still had to dish out $2,400 in cash to pay for additional medical expenses.

According to Trayling, security guards were offered health care plans with Kaiser Permanente for $26 per month before Jan. 1. Since then, however, premiums have gone up to about $140 per month, and the copayment has doubled from $20 to $40 per visit.

The first strike among private security officers in San Francisco found some official support — the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution Sept. 25 in favor of the security guards. Sup. Tom Ammiano stood before a small crowd of workers clad in purple T-shirts on the steps of City Hall and expressed the city’s support for higher wages, affordable health insurance, and proper training.

Mayor Gavin Newsom also issued a statement saying, "I urge the involved parties to work more diligently towards a fair and reasonable settlement — one that recognizes the economic concerns of the workers while at the same time respect[ing] the employers’ need for operating flexibility within the wide range of facilities in which they provide security services."

Newsom also asked commercial-building owners and managers to involve themselves in the negotiation process with the security companies in order to set new industry standards. The Building Owners and Managers Association did not return our call seeking comment on the strike and related issues.