Building Insecurity

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Jesse Villegas takes pride in protecting the Empire State Building. A security guard at the 34th Street entrance, he reports to work in the landmark’s cavernous marble halls, overseeing turnstiles that scan office workers’ I.D. cards. But even though he’s a security officer, Villegas sometimes wonders if the building is safe. “Nobody really checks I.D.,” says Villegas. “All they’re doing is making sure people don’t jump over the turnstile.”

They also don’t do much to screen the 3.8 million tourists who pour through annually. A visitor’s first encounter with security is an x-ray machine for bags, located in the building basement where the line for observatory tickets begins. Entry to the building itself and various parts of its lower floors is monitored by nothing more than a surveillance camera.

The lax security hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last summer, tenants filed a lawsuit alleging reckless and negligent security practices. Howard Rubenstein, spokesperson for the building’s management, says security is “based upon industry standards.”

Yet even since 9/11, those industry standards are woefully low, according to a recent report from the city’s public advocate. Characterizing the city’s security force as “ill-prepared to protect its public,” the survey found officer training to be outdated and frequently insufficient, wages low, and turnover rampant.

SEIU Local 32BJ is hoping to change all that with a new campaign to organize about 6,000 security officers in high-end office buildings, including the Empire State Building and 250 Broadway, home to local legislative offices.

The union hopes not only to raise wages and garner benefits for security officers but to raise the profile of a typically low-wage, entry-level occupation. “Security is a workforce that’s often overlooked as part of building staff,” says Lenore Friedlander, director of organizing for 32BJ, which represents security officers as well as other building service workers like janitors and porters.

That’s far less true across the pond, says Jim McNulty, an executive vice-president at Securitas, the largest security company in the U.S. Regarded as an industry leader, Sweden-based Securitas employs about 5,000 security officers in New York City. “In many European countries, the job itself carries more respect,” says McNulty. “People are better paid and have better benefit programs.” Here, guards’ wages average between $9 and $10 an hour, with many making considerably less. Few companies offer health insurance, sick days or vacation.

The companies say they’re doing their best. Fierce competition renders industry profit margins tight, so the cost of higher wages or more benefits would be borne by clients. And few are willing to pay more. “A lot of people see security as a necessary expense, but not [related to] profits,” says McNulty. “Consequently, cost becomes a big factor.”

Low wages and benefits exact their toll, mostly because they fuel turnover, estimated to be as high as 400 percent nationwide. Having workers cycle in and out can compromise safety, says Robert McCrie, professor of security management at John Jay College and an expert on the industry. The longer an officer stays in a job, the more familiar he or she is with a building. That means that “when exceptions occur, [guards] are in a better position to do the right thing,” explains McCrie, “rather than just stumble and call for help.”

Guards also need better training, say insiders. “The curriculum we use, it’s so old it’s pathetic,” says a security instructor at a local firm, who declined to be named or identify his employer.

State requirements for security training were last updated in 1994, and mandate just eight hours of prejob training, plus 16 on the job. That requirement is often ignored; 17 percent of workers surveyed by the public advocate reported having less than the eight hours of prejob training required by law. New York’s standards are more lax than those in Europe, where training programs often exceed 150 hours.

Last fall, the City Council passed a resolution calling for the state to adopt more stringent security standards, but there’s been no movement in Albany thus far. (In November, the governor did sign legislation requiring stricter background checks.) For its part, 32BJ has developed a 40-hour training program with city agencies that includes terrorism awareness and response, crime prevention, and basic fire prevention and extinguishing skills–none of which are currently required by the state.

Villegas thinks that’s a shame. He sought out and paid for security courses on top of his initial eight hours, but it hasn’t helped his wages. “I’m making $7.50 an hour,” he says. “I’m going to stay at $7.50 an hour as long as I’m there.”

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