NY’s Security-Guard Industry Grows Amid Lax Oversight

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A private security officer outside Yankee Stadium. State regulations and enforcement have failed to track the steady growth of the private-security industry since September 11.

Adi Talwar

A private security officer outside Yankee Stadium. State regulations and enforcement have failed to track the steady growth of the private-security industry since September 11.

TV and movies tell us security guards are bumbling fat idiots. They are the butt of a joke. Falling asleep with their feet up, they never pay attention to those security camera monitors while burglars steal gold or priceless paintings or stacks of cash. They’re easily distracted, easily gagged and tied up and — as in Die Hard or The Matrix or countless other action films — easily killed.

In real life, they work long, boring hours strolling the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, waving metal detectors at Mets games, printing sticky visitor passes at commercial buildings, checking IDs at concerts, standing for hours and hours on end at public landmarks, department stores, colleges, pharmacies.

Guards are everywhere.

There are more than two times as many security guards than police officers in New York state and roughly 10 times as many guards as firefighters. While a lot of kids grow up itching to join the NYPD or the fire department, it’s hard to find someone who said they wanted to be a security guard when they grew up.

The guard who patrols a corporate plaza with an H&R Block and Chase Bank in Midtown wants to be a train conductor. The guard scanning IDs at a commercial office building near Grand Central dreams of a career as a stand-up comedian. The guard who works at a Duane Reade in the Upper West Side hopes to be a cop. The older guards who aren’t retired police officers, when asked what they think of a career in security, will shrug, as if to say, “It’s a job. It pays the rent.”

The security industry is growing in New York — and while being a guard is arguably a more respected profession than it was decades ago, it’s still an unglamorous and disrespected, and even dangerous, job where a negative confrontation often ends with the familiar insults “wannabe cop,” “rent-a-cop,” “flashlight cop.” People doing the gig prefer “security officer” — a term that industry leaders have used in an attempt to move away from the square-badged, bumbling fat “guard” stereotype.

In one sense, it’s working. There are definite signs that the industry is becoming more professionalized, but complaints by guards and civilians indicate the system still tolerates the abuse of low-level security workers by employers and also the physical abuse by rogue guards on ordinary citizens. City Limits dug into New York’s private security industry and found an environment where vulnerable workers are open to mistreatment, justice against abusive guards is hard to come by and there are serious gaps in oversight from government agencies that struggle to keep up with a growing industry that New Yorkers increasingly rely on to keep them safe.

The number of employed guards in New York state has risen in each of the last six years and in 2015, the 113,490 guards employed statewide was the the highest for any year since 1997, when data-keeping began. Despite this growth, City Limits found that the state agency tasked with overseeing the industry—which used to audit every security company every year to make sure employers and guards were following the rules—was forced by resource constraints to stop that practice and has not conducted a single audit in more than three years.

‘Eyes and ears’

As one elected official said at a recent union rally, guards are “the eyes and ears of New York.” Their entire purpose is to protect property and that property includes government buildings, airports, public landmarks, museums and other high-traffic areas. They are a major part of New York’s safety network: They pat down or wand the public into courts and stadiums and concerts, contact authorities if an incident occurs, evacuate buildings in emergencies and relay information to first responders.

Perception of the industry has not always been great.

“While the industry has evolved and expanded nearly beyond recognition, especially since the bellwether attacks of 9/11, many outside the industry regard security the same way they did decades ago,” reads a 2014 report from the trade group ASIS International.

Though good data is hard to come by, there are estimates that show revenue at private security companies increased 400 to 600 percent between 1980 and 2010. In 2013, one report valued the security industry at $350 billion. The reason for the boom isn’t easy to pinpoint. Executives surveyed in a 2013 report attributed the nationwide growth to an increase in businesses trying to reduce liability in the event of an incident, active shooter incidents, natural disasters and terrorist threats, especially after 9/11.

Simply put, as our society becomes more and more obsessed with security, guards have been asked to do more.

These additional responsibilities have nudged the industry toward more professional operation. Wages for the top 10 percent of guards statewide have increased over the last two decades, from an average annual salary of $31,000 in 1997 to over $48,000 in 2015. It’s a growing industry that offers jobs to New Yorkers with few required skills. And there’s a growing union presence, which has helped guards earn better wages and health benefits.

Security workers also seem to have a growing sense of their value in the workforce.

“We are actually doing something. We are protecting people — without even a weapon, you know?” one veteran security officer, Dean McDonald, 46, told City Limits.

McDonald has worked as guard for 17 years, and currently patrols at a prominent financial institution in Manhattan that he asked we not name. He said after 9/11, New Yorkers started showing more respect for guards, seeing them more as human beings who are part of keeping New York safe. Other guards said the same thing, that following the 2001 terrorist attacks, people became more tolerant of being asked to pull out IDs, open their backpacks or remove the metal objects from their pockets.

“In the olden days, we were just a nuisance, and nobody really thought that what we were doing was moving the needle at at all,” said Robert S. Tucker, CEO of T&M Protection Resources and chairman of the state’s Security Guard Advisory Council, a group that advises state agencies on security guard policy, and whose members are appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.

“Security guards really are on the front lines of public safety,” he said, adding: “They are not even first responders. They are already there.”

But not all companies have shown the same increasing respect for guards that everyday New Yorkers have. Many guards interviewed by City Limits said the industry is still full of “warm body” companies (as in, all they want is a warm body) that abuse workers, pay low wages, stifle efforts to unionize, treat employees as replaceable and offer few chances at promotion or moving up the ladder — not to mention the scam companies promising employment in exchange for training.

Meanwhile, government oversight of the industry has not kept up with the growth in profits or payrolls.

Outtasite (and outtamind)

In 1992, New York took a big step toward professionalizing the private security industry when Gov. Mario Cuomo signed “The Security Guard Act” — a law that required guards to be trained and registered with the state. There have been some changes since, like in 2004 when guards applying for state registration had to undergo FBI background checks. But for the most part the regulatory regime has not tracked the changes in security work. Right now the state requires the same basic training for a part-time guard at a dollar store in the Catskills as his counterpart at 1 World Trade Center.

The security-guard profession falls into a murky area between the private and public worlds. They draw their authority from property laws — property owners have the right to protect their assets — so a guard’s primary function is to protect investments, not individuals. That doesn’t simply mean preventing theft, like at a retail store, but also involves reducing liability for owners in the event of an incident on their property.

But there is a public safety aspect to the job. That’s why New York state nearly a quarter of a century ago required training for security officers.

Because security work exists as a sort of public/private hybrid, two state agencies currently oversee the industry in New York. The Department of State (DOS) handles the property-protection side, issuing business licenses to guards like it does 31 other occupations including nail salon workers, notaries, real estate brokers and barbers. The Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) handles the public safety aspect, making sure guards are adequately trained.

Neither of these agencies have adequate resources to make sure state law is followed — to check that the required training is adequate and that companies are employing properly registered guards.

DCJS is still using a paper-based system to check rosters at training schools and, because of dwindling resources, it rarely initiates random audits of training schools. City Limits found that the state struggles to root out training schools where you can “buy a certificate”—meaning show up for the required annual eight-hour training class, but are actually instructed for significantly less time, sometimes just 20 or 30 minutes.

As for DOS, the agency is tasked with making sure the state’s 2,229 security guard employers (including security companies but also private companies that hire guards in-house) are complying with state laws. DOS used to audit every security-guard employer in the state every year. That stopped in 2009. And they have not conducted a single audit in more than three years, DOS’ new chief investigator, Ernita Gantt, revealed at the January meeting of the Security Guard Advisory Council.

Asked why the agency stopped auditing companies, a spokesman for DOS said their enforcement program rotated to different industries. Since ceasing its security enforcement in 2009, “the department has been conducting state initiated audits and inspections of real-estate brokers, real-estate salespeople, real-estate appraisers, barbers, appearance enhancement businesses, and appearance enhancement workers,” the spokesman wrote in an email. The agency plans to do a random audit of 25 percent of security employers later this year. But for many years, guard employers have been left to their own devices.

When DOS was regularly auditing security companies, they found a steady stream of problems. DOS issued more than $6 million in fines every year in 2006, 2007 and 2008 for thousands of violations of the Security Guard Act, including, according to DOS, “improper hiring practices, [demonstrating] untrustworthiness/incompetency, and conduct relating to criminal offenses.”

In 2009, the first year DOS did not conduct audits of security companies and instead relied on complaints to initiate investigations, they collected $101,875, far below the level of enforcement seen in earlier years. Suspensions of guards for violating the Security Guard Act used to be numbered in the hundreds, but have sunk to as low as single digits in recent years. In 2007, the state issued 1,534 suspensions for things including a guard getting arrested or after getting complaints about abuse or incompetence. That number has mostly shrunk since and in 2014 was down to eight total suspensions. Last year, there were 29. The same goes for revocations: In 2006, 245 guards had their licenses revoked. Last year, that number was 86 guards.

It’s highly unlikely the bad behavior vanished just because the state rotated to another industry.

The reason for the change in emphasis is staffing. According to state budgets, the licensing division of DOS, which handles licenses for 800,000 businesses and individuals including guards and security companies, had a staff of about 400 from the late 1990s until 2009. In 2009, the last year it audited every security company in the state, the licensing staff was 423. That number has been hacked down in almost every budget since. Last year, the staff was half what it was just six years ago, at 220 employees.

Layers of Liability

That patchy oversight of the security industry doesn’t just affect officers; it can impact the people who deal with guards, too. One basis for the fines that DOS levies against security companies is not registering new employees with them. Every time a company that employs guards hires a new guard, it must pay the state $25 and file an “Employment Status Notification” form. This is a way for the state to keep tabs on which guards are employed at different companies. While it may seem like an unnecessary bureaucratic shakedown of a prosperous industry, keeping tabs on which guards work at what companies is very important—to members of the public—when an encounter with a guard goes wrong.

We found a number of lawsuits against “John Doe” security guards and the stores they worked in. Attorneys in such lawsuits later have to ask the state for information on guards to connect the dots.

Part of what makes the private security industry so valuable to other firms is that it removes a level of liability for the company—be it a bank, a hotel, a drug store—that hires the security firm. For example, a guard who works at Duane Reade does not work for Duane Reade, but rather for a private company contracted to supply the pharmacy with a guard. This gets messy in lawsuits. Different courts have different interpretations of who exactly is liable if a guard has a wage complaint or if a citizen sues after getting beaten up by a guard.

Recently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals made a significant decision in a case called Grenawalt vs. AT&T. Three security guards brought a class-action lawsuit against a now-defunct security company called Gladius Protection, Inc. and AT&T, alleging they were not paid overtime wages despite regularly working more than 40 hours per week. A New York district court ruled that AT&T could not be held responsible because it was not a direct employer of the guards, but in March, the 2nd Court of Appeals overruled the district court, deciding that AT&T could be found liable for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act. The case was remanded for trial. But it is unlikely to resolve the question of where liability ends for the security company’s and begins for the firm that hired them.

These questions of liability are even more difficult in cases where guards are accused of abuse.

Edward Staroselsky is a 67-year-old documentary filmmaker from Brooklyn. On March 9, 2015, he was shopping at an ALDI supermarket just before closing. He left the store, but, according to his lawyers, realized he’d forgotten to purchase an item and tried to get back in. The door was locked, so he waited until another customer exited through automatic doors. When he re-entered the store, security guard Raheem Cash approached him. They got into a dispute over whether he was allowed back into the store, which quickly escalated. Cash pushed Staroselsky and punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground.

Staroselsky pressed charges. Cash was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault, which he later pled guilty to, according to the New York Courts website. Staroselsky hired a lawyer, Carmen Giordano of Giordano Law Offices, and filed a suit against the guard, as well as ALDI and the security company that ALDI hired, Elite Security.

But Elite Security is nowhere to be found. They haven’t answered the complaint against them and Giordano recently filed for a default judgment against the company. Giordano, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, said he’s seen this problem before and that some lawyers don’t even take cases against security companies because it’s hard to hold them accountable.

“Elite Security has suddenly disappeared now that they have gotten sued,” he said. “We’ve turned down a lot of cases like this because it’s so difficult to find a liable party.”

In response to questions about the incident, a spokesperson for ALDI replied simply that “ALDI no longer works with Elite Security.”

Lack of info

Part of the story of the private security industry is how little information we actually have on guards — both on the guards themselves and also incidents where guards physically abuse the public. You might think there’s a lack of data on incidents of abuse by police against members of the public, but while that data might be hard to access, it does exist. In the security industry, on the other hand, there is not system to track or analyze abuse by guards against the public.

This lack of data is a thread of a larger veil. Despite its growing size and importance, there’s relatively little research on the security industry. Dr. Mahesh Nalla, a professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University, is fascinated with the private security industry, partly because of how little information is out there. He’s one of the few researchers devoted to the topic.

He said one reason for the minimal data is that many reports on incidents never see the light of day because private companies handle the complaints quickly and quietly.

“The company will take care of it right away,” Nalla told City Limits. “It’s snuffed out in its nascent stages, nipped in the bud. If it’s egregious they may do a report, but it would never see the light of day.

Even smaller complaints against guards that do not rise to the level of criminality can be hard to register in an official way. If person wants to make an official complaint with a government agency against a guard at a store, it can be confusing. The City’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) has a list on its website of types of businesses you can and can’t file a complaint against. Neither “security guard” nor “private security company” is on either list.

When City Limits asked DCA about this, they said they refer complaints against guards to DCJS. But DCJS doesn’t handle complaints against guards, only against guard training schools. DOS handles the complaints against guards.

So we asked DOS, which on top of its duty to license guards also oversees the state’s Division of Consumer Protection. Upon receiving a complaint against a guard or a guard company, DOS investigates and can impose a fine of up to $1,000. In 2015, DOS received 37 complaints against guards, down from the 51 complaints it received in 2014. Those complaints resulted in fines and many of the 29 suspensions DOS issued last year.

And if official sources for information on guards are lacking, anecdotal evidence is also hard to come by. Guards don’t like to talk. City Limits approached dozens of guards and a vast majority did not want to be quoted or spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of getting fired.

Money, that’s what I want

Giordano, who represented Staroselsky in the abuse lawsuit, said he thinks better training would mean fewer incidents between guards and the public.

“Everybody would benefit from more rigorous requirements for certification of guards in New York state. Everybody would benefit, including guards themselves. They can hold themselves to a much more professional level,” he said.

But some guards said you get what you pay for.

“For you to be trained better, you’ve got to be paid better,” said George Rivera, 59, who works as a guard at Fallas Stores, a clothing chain on busy East Fordham Road in the Bronx.

From bank lobbies to drug-store checkout lanes, private security guards are often, quite literally, the defenders of capitalism. But capitalism hasn’t really returned the favor. The average wage per hour for a guard in 2015, according to the Department of Labor, was $15.48, with a median wage of $14.34. The lowest 10 percent of guards statewide float just above the $9 minimum wage, so the state’s minimum wage increase, which goes up to at least $10.50 per hour at the end of this year, will impact thousands of guards. Right now, however, according to the state’s Department of Labor, the entry level salary for guards ($20,520) is below groundskeepers ($20,790) and just above dishwashers ($18,390), fast food cooks ($18,280) and janitors ($19,760).

At a recent 32BJ rally for guards, one union member, who works at 1WTC and asked not to be named for fear of getting fired, said she started working at that site for $12.85 per hour. Her pay has gone up; the current contract minimum for the 12,000 or so guards represented by 32BJ is $13.35.

“They have no respect for us,” she said. “We’re replaceable, even if we’re in the union.”

Luis Baez, a 32-year-old guard from Brooklyn, says in his experience, security companies, even the big ones, often try to short him of his wages, so he always makes sure to check his pay-stubs meticulously.

“That’s the first rule — check your pay,” said Baez, who has worked in security since he was 18 and is currently at a commercial building near Grand Central. He’s the guard who wants to be a stand-up comedian. He joked that security is his “family business,” because his father and uncle were guards.

During his 14 years in security, Baez said he’s been laid off three times and has quit just as often — once after he refused to help the janitors with the cleaning at a building he patrolled. In his relatively short career, he seems to have experienced everything ugly about the security business, including years ago when a boss told him he had to sign up with a union he never heard of at the cost of $20 per paycheck. But he said he never met a representative from that union. According to 32BJ SEIU — a prominent union that has grown its security membership to 12,000 strong — the industry is occasionally plagued by fake unions created by management.

When we met for an interview after he got off work on a recent afternoon, the first thing Baez said was, “I’m trying to get out.” What irks him the most is the pay. He says he’ll apply to ads he sees on Monster or Indeed or Craigslist advertising $13 or $14 per hour. He’ll get a call from the company repeating the notion that the job is $13 or $14 per hour. But when he shows up, it’s $9 per hour.

“They say, ‘Oh if you really want to work, you’ll take it,'” he said.

Sometimes companies limit his hours so they can avoid paying benefits, Baez said. So he patches together part-time gigs, one at a school paying $10 an hour and another at an office building paying $9.

Rivera, the guard at Fallas Stores, said he’s been working security for 30 years at various sites, and has dealt with companies that constantly “nickel and dime” guards, sometimes giving out promotions with more responsibility but with promises of pay increases that turn up empty.

Lawsuits filed by security workers in New York courts confirm that abuse can go further than simply low pay or broken promises. City Limits found dozens of lawsuits in recent years where guards sued employers for not paying employees for all the hours they worked, or paying a flat fee no matter how many hours they worked, violating minimum wage laws.

In one active case, a Bronx guard and his two colleagues from Manhattan are suing a construction company. They allege the company paid them $500 per week, even though they were asked to sleep at the vacant construction sites. Including these sleeping hours means they worked as many as 123 hours per week, meaning their weekly check worked out to roughly half of the minimum wage.

As of last month, there were 2,299 companies that employ security guards statewide, according to the Department of State website. It’s not just the smaller security companies that have been accused of abuse. In 2014, City Comptroller Scott Stringer reached a settlement with Allied Barton, one of the largest global security companies, to pay $1.3 million in wages to 143 guards to address complaints that the firm had not paid the guards the required prevailing wages.

The department in charge of investigating wage complaints, the state Department of Labor, does not make complaints publicly available. City Limits asked for general information on complaints from security guards in early April and was told to file a Freedom of Information request, which is pending.

In a large and growing industry, there are bad spots and good ones—and, naturally, guards hope to move from one to the other.

The guard who patrols the corporate plaza in Midtown (and wants to be a train conductor) asked we not print her name for fear of retribution. She said last year she broke her toe off hours and in response, the security company tried to get her to quit by giving her more outdoor patrol shifts where she’d have to walk around more.

She said she’s trying to get out of security, but would stay if she got what she described as the “Holy Grail” of security gigs: working at the Museum of Modern Art.

“I would stay in security if I got MoMa,” she laughed. “I hear you get treated like a human being, benefits. You even get your birthday off, paid.”

* * * *
In Part Two, coming tomorrow, City Limits looks at what it actually takes to become a licensed security guard in New York, including its problematic training school system.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Gomez (@JonGom14)
The story was made possible through the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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