by Alex Garland
In 2020, the phrase “essential worker” became synonymous with health care, grocery store employees, and first responders. However, local security officers are saying they often feel forgotten, despite their daily interactions with the public.
Last Friday, many of them came together at a march and rally at Westlake Park to demand a stronger union contract that addresses training needs, staffing issues, in addition to sexual harassment, racism, and unsafe conditions experienced in the work place. There are approximately 4,000 security officers represented by SEIU6, according to Executive Secretary Treasurer Katie Garrow.
“You are not demanding any more from your employers than what you are already willing to give everyday at work,” Garrow said. “That is protection, that is safety, that is security. Those are basic rights that every single worker in this MLK County Labor Council deserves.”
A number of unionized security officers were on hand to share their experiences while being watched by security officers from Iron and Oak Security. Iron and Oak Security employees were tasked with “close protection” of sanitation workers and Downtown Ambassadors, as well as providing security services at Westlake Park where the rally was being held.
As supportive union members filled the chairs and repeated chants, security personnel explained why they needed union support at the bargaining table. While many of the issues experienced by security officers were safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kayla Haughey’s experience required her to take an Uber once or twice a day when public transportation shut down.
“When I asked for a code to help lessen the costs, I was told it was only for employees, and as a contracted security officer, I was not eligible for it. I was put on the frontline time and time again and told how important I was, although I never felt it.”
Kevin Bolton Jr., a security guard with two years’ experience, said he was taking additional risk to do his job beyond the ones associated with normal security work.
“We were the ones having to interact with the public, with the risk of bringing COVID back to our families,” Bolton Jr. said.
With all the additional responsibilities added to a normal workload, Bolton Jr. feels the companies he provides security for can afford to pay higher wages.
Jasmine Bell who works as a security officer at the Starbucks Roastery on Capitol Hill says she has to patrol indoors and out and that everything has changed in the past two years.
“Everyday you have to worry about the homeless, policing, COVID” Bell said.
Despite the difficulty she experiences trying to communicate with the public while wearing a mask, Bell knows she is ultimately responsible for her own safety while doing her job.
“I love my job, but you have to take yourself into consideration,” she said.
It wasn’t just the pandemic that had security officers worried for their safety. Security guard Demetrus Dugar — who is Black — worried about his own safety during the uprisings surrounding the murder of George Floyd by police.
“A lot of us were on the side of the protestors, but when we were walking around, all they saw was a badge,” Dugar said. “Some of that anger went our way a little bit. That was a scary couple of weeks as a security guard and the first time I took my uniform off before walking the two blocks to my car.”
Veterans of the security profession were on hand to share their stories and explain the changes that came with working in a pandemic. Dugar has spent 16 years in the industry and is on his third bargaining team for a fair security contract.
“Fellow union brothers and sisters have felt overworked and disrespected. We were considered essential but weren’t treated that way. We had to work [on] day one of the pandemic, because our sites don’t guard themselves,” Dugar said.
Dugar found that over the past two years, he and his colleagues were “left out of hazard pay considerations, we were left off the vaccine list for people who wanted it, and we had to fight to get [personal protective equipment]… thankfully our union fought for everyone who wanted the vaccine.”
Cameron Lecksiwilai felt that training and staffing for security personnel were both insufficient.
“We need hands-on training from our supervisors, not looking at a screen or book,” Lecksiwilai said. Rita Patterson added that gender and race play a part in her feeling disrespected.
“We need a fair chance for career advancement opportunities regardless of our gender or race,” Patterson said.
City Council Member Tammy Morales stated her support for those fighting for a stronger contract.
“Security officers have been out on the streets witnessing first hand the challenges the city is facing. I think it’s time you get treated with the respect you deserve with this work. This contract can help address the changes you need to see, and officers are speaking up because the changes we’re looking for deal with economic justice,” Morales said. “No one should be working 40 hours a week and struggle to put food on the table.”
Following Morales, King County Council Member Dave Upthegrove told the crowd that he and others in “positions of power, have your back, so go into negotiations with confidence, because you deserve this.”
Before the rally marched to a non-unionized work place, Westlake Center, across the street, SEIU 6 union President Zenia Javalera told the crowd, “Whether they’re demanding and end to racism on the job, and end to sexual harassment, or an end to verbal abuse from supervisors, over 87% of officers are calling for respect. The pandemic and all it’s challenges have only highlighted that every ounce of respect these officers are calling for is earned. They have earned it in their professionalism and their commitment to keeping the peace in an era of high volatility, worsening inequality, and civil unrest.”
“For the growing ranks of Black and Brown officers, it’s a matter of racial justice. We are here to demand a good contract, and we won’t stop until we get one,” Javalera said.
Alex Garland is a photojournalist and reporter. Follow him on Twitter.
Featured image: Local security officers march near Westlake Center on Mar.22, 2022, to demand a new union contract. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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