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 said 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 said.
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 said 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, instead paying out of pocket for whatever care they can afford.
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 her home and writing threatening letters. After making the rent and car payments and buying groceries, there is no money left over from Johnson's paycheck to cover that kind of debt.
Johnson and Yarborough agree on the reason 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 even when security guards need to switch employers. "It is strength in numbers," Yarborough said. "We got all this through the union. 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, while 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 Corporation of Marion County, Wishard's parent organization, with a giant pill labeled, "No Healthcare is Hard to Swallow."
Wishard's current hospital is patrolled by security guards who are direct Wishard employees receiving better pay and benefits than the Securatex guards. And 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 said. "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, said 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 said. "We are proud to report that our safety statistics are better than both federal and state averages." (Full disclosure: In October, I 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.)
"Someone is Going to Get Hurt"
Like Johnson, Tony "Coach" Young also works for Securatex at a local government site. Young is a security guard at the Duvall Residential Center, a Near-Eastside work-release facility that houses over 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 said 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 Manual High School, Young said CPR and first-aid training was required before he was allowed to coach high school wrestlers, but the training wasn't required for him to be assigned to guard the 340 inmates at Duvall.
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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 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. Quickly, another two dozen inmates joined in, and the situation appeared on the verge of escalating into a riot. Young radioed for backup, but no one ever responded. The situation cooled down, but Young said the next time may not end so peacefully. "Eventually, someone is going to get hurt," he said. "And that is because the City of Indianapolis made a decision to hire a contractor that is cheap, but does not train their employees."
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, Securatex President Patricia DuCanto recently told WRTV-6 that the company meets all the training standards set by its contracts.
DuCanto also told WRTV-6 that the negative attention directed toward Securatex was the product of the SEIU organizing campaign. The union has been organizing security guards in Indianapolis for the last three years. For his part, Young happily admits to being an advocate for union recognition at Duvall Center. "We are dealing with all walks of life there, so we need better training, better wages, and better health care," he said.
Tiara Johnson agrees. She, too, cites the need for benefits and a wage that would allow her to pay her rent, car payment, and to buy groceries. Johnson and her husband recently agreed to adopt 2-year-old twin girls whose mother faces legal trouble, so money will be tighter than ever.
But Johnson has the focus of an experienced security guard, so she circles back from economic concerns to the issue of safety. "We need the training," she said. "Right now, we are out there just hoping to get through difficult situations so we can go home to our families at the end of the night."