Guards seek security of better training, treatment

By Fran Quigley | 

Tiara Johnson and Tonya Yarborough have a lot in common. Both women are mothers, and both are security   guards with several years of experience. Johnson works for a Wishard Health Services contractor at the construction site for the new Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis; Yarborough works in the financial district in Chicago.But when Johnson arrives at her worksite at 6 a.m. and puts on her high-visibility vest, hard hat and safety goggles, differences begin to emerge. Johnson is paid just $10 per hour, significantly less than Yarborough’s near $13-per-hour wage. Yarborough has been thoroughly trained in handling emergencies, Johnson has not. Beyond viewing a short safety video required of all Wishard staff, Johnson says security guards at the construction site are provided no special training. “We are pretty much given a uniform and told to stand there and open a gate,” she says.Through her work, Yarborough has health insurance that allows her and her son to see a doctor and get discounted prescriptions. She has not had a co-payment for eight years. Johnson says the health insurance offered by her direct employer, a company called Securatex, is all but worthless, covering only a fraction of health care costs in return for employee contributions. Johnson and most of her colleagues choose not to pay for the policy.But health crises have a way of ignoring such budget planning. When Johnson suffered from heat exhaustion after a 12-hour work shift in August, her emergency room bill added up to almost $4,000. Now, collection agencies are calling and writing threatening letters. After covering the necessities, there is no money left from Johnson’s paycheck to cover the debt.

Johnson and Yarborough agree on the reason why their lives are so different, despite their similar jobs: Yarborough is represented by a union at her workplace, Johnson is not. Yarborough’s employer has a contract with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) that includes annual raises, a grievance procedure, and seniority rights. “It is strength in numbers,” Yarborough says. “The company is never going to give us that on our own as individuals.”

In contrast, SEIU efforts to organize Johnson’s employer Securatex have not yet been successful. Also, Illinois mandates initial training, background checks, and refresher training for security guards like Yarborough, where Indiana law includes no such requirements. (A 2010 proposal to require minimal training for security guards in Indianapolis failed to pass the City-County Council.)

Workers going without health care while helping to erect a state-of-the-art hospital presents an irony that Johnson and others guarding the hospital construction site do not shy away from invoking. They have held demonstrations outside the building brandishing giant Band-Aids lettered, “Working Without Health Care at Wishard Hurts.” They marched in front of the Health and Hospital Corp. of Marion County, Wishard’s parent organization, with a giant pill labeled, “No Health care is Hard to Swallow.”

Wishard’s current hospital is patrolled by security guards who are direct Wishard employees receiving better pay and benefits than Securatex guards. Johnson is quick to praise Wishard’s commitment to its low-income patients and the community’s overall health. “This situation with Securatex is not up to Wishard’s good reputation,” she says. “Their responsibility is to hire a contractor who shares their values. Wishard needs to do its homework a little more, instead of saying, ‘You are the cheapest, so I’m going to go with you.’”

Todd Harper, public affairs manager for Wishard Health Services, says that Securatex has complied with all Health and Hospital Corp. training and staffing requirements, and that the wages and benefits offered by Securatex are comparable to other local companies offering on-site security. “Safety is a top priority at the construction site,” Harper says. “We are proud to report that our safety statistics are better than both federal and state averages.”

‘Someone is going to get hurt’

Like Tiara Johnson, Tony “Coach” Young also works for Securatex at a local government site. Young is a security guard at the Duvall Residential Facility, a Near Eastside work-release center that houses more than 300 inmates. Young is among many who echo Johnson’s critique of Securatex for failure to train its guards. The company has lost several security contracts with local government agencies in recent months, and multiple sources inside and outside the company say that Securatex’s training practices are seriously deficient.

Young says he has worked at Duvall since 2010, but has never received any self-defense or conflict resolution training through the job. A broad-shouldered part-time wrestling coach at Emmerich Manual High School, Young says CPR and first-aid training was required of him before he was allowed to coach, but not before he was assigned to guard the inmates.

Young and other guards say that as few as five security officers are assigned to oversee the inmates on an overnight shift. The Securatex contract with the City of Indianapolis calls for an armed guard with special deputy arresting powers to be present on site at all times, but guards say there are many times when no such deputy is present.

One night in September, during Young’s shift, several inmates got into a fight that escalated. Young radioed for backup, but no one ever responded. The situation cooled down, but Young says the next time may not end so peacefully. “Eventually, someone is going to get hurt,” he says.

John Deiter, executive director of the Marion County Community Corrections agency that oversees the Duvall Center, would not comment for this article, citing instructions from the city’s Office of Corporation Counsel. Securatex did not return calls seeking comment. However, company president Patricia DuCanto recently told WRTV-6 that Securatex meets all the training standards set by its contracts.

DuCanto also told WRTV-6 that the negative attention directed to Securatex was the product of the SEIU organizing campaign. The union has been organizing security guards in Indianapolis for the last three years.

(Editor’s note: In October, Fran Quigley, author of this story, was one of several IU and IUPUI faculty members who signed a letter to Wishard CEO Dr. Lisa Harris asking Wishard to ensure that its contractors’ employees receive fair wages and benefits.)

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