When Eva Conyers lost her job as a security guard at the privately-run homeless shelter in the Best Western Grand Street in lower Manhattan, it wasn’t because she was bad at it. It was because she was a resident of the shelter herself, she said, which was a conflict of interest according to her employer. But, living in the shelter was all she could afford. Even though she worked full time, Conyers didn’t make enough to have her own apartment.
And Conyers is not alone. While her situation is extreme, it illustrates how many of the people who are taking care of New York’s neediest are one missed paycheck or expense away from joining them themselves.
But, legislation introduced in the New York City Council on Tuesday afternoon by two city councilmembers hopes to change that.
City Councilmembers Francisco Moya (D-Queens) and Diana Ayala (D-Bronx) introduced legislation that would put security guards in privately-run homeless shelters on equal footing with those employed by city-run homeless shelters, a move that they said is long overdue.
Security guards in privately-run shelters are paid less than their counterparts employed by the city, and receive no benefits, Moya and Ayala said. They also don’t receive adequate training to handle situations such as sexual harassment or mental health crises.
These discrepancies have gone on for too long and need to be fixed because they disproportionately affect people of color and endanger both the security guards and the population they are there to protect, they said.
“We have to stand with these workers, who are predominantly black and brown, and serve mostly black and brown New Yorkers, and say that we will not quietly accept the conditions that they face,” said Moya during a press conference Tuesday morning.
Moya’s legislation would require security guards at privately-run shelters to receive the prevailing wage, which is set each year by the New York City Comptroller. The change would result in a pay increase for the workers, many of which make minimum wage, and access to benefits such as healthcare.
“We will not accept that these private contracts taking public dollars and then paying their workers poverty wages without meaningful benefits,” said Moya.
Meanwhile, Ayala’s would make mandatory a 40 hour training that includes sexual harassment prevention, de-escalation techniques for situations involving someone going through a mental health crises, and other training specific to the work site.
“It’s unfortunate that individuals, specifically black and brown individuals, are being put in positions where they are securing the home of some the neediest people in New York and that they’re not equipped with the tools that they need to keep themselves and the public safe,” Ayala said.
The bills, int 2006-2020 and int 1995-2020, are unnamed as of yet but have the support of 32BJ SEIU, a union that represents security guards as well as many other workers throughout the city.
“These two bills go hand in hand,” said Denis Johnston, a vice president of 32BJ SEUI. “Workers have been enduring a whole lot. There’s been tremendous hardship during this coronavirus pandemic and even before the pandemic.”
The coronavirus pandemic highlights the importance of better pay and access to healthcare but the union’s push for these changes predates the pandemic, they said. The same applies to the need for better training. Currently security guards employed at privately-run homeless shelters are required to go through only 8 hours of training as opposed to the 40 their counterparts go through.
Charmaine Lathan, a security guard at the privately-run homeless shelter in the Holiday Inn on 29th Street in Manhattan, said that she really hopes their pay is increased because it would make it so she can afford her own apartment. Like Conyers, Lathan also lives in a homeless shelter despite working full time for another homeless shelter.
“Ironically, I ended up living in a shelter after I lost the housing that I needed when I started working full time to take care of my family,” she said.
Lathan said that she has some de-escalation training from when she was employed by the Parks Department but the homeless shelter never had her do any. Many of her coworkers have never been trained at all, she said. She also said that while she qualifies for Medicaid, most of her coworkers pay for their healthcare out of pocket, which is especially stressful given that they could potentially contract COVID-19 while at work.
“We’re being exposed to this deadly disease. We should not have to worry about whether or not we can get health coverage or medical coverage that we need,” she said. “It’s a lot to process and it gets overwhelming sometimes.”