Essential & Black: A Security Guard in Harlem, NY Who Feels Betrayed By Her Employer

"I know the slave conditioning has worked on me. I have fear in my heart and it has frozen my tongue and my feet."

Speak Patrice Presents: Coronavirus News for Black Folks is an independent newsletter by journalist Patrice Peck. I’m aiming to empower our community by sharing coronavirus (COVID-19) news and stories as they relate to the Black Diaspora.

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Illustration by Candii Kismet for Coronavirus News for Black Folks

Amid global social distancing efforts sparked by the coronavirus outbreak, select businesses and services deemed essential have remained open to keep our society functioning. Many of these jobs are often low-paying with little-to-no benefits and mostly performed by Black and brown women. “Essential & Black” is an ongoing interview series that spotlights the Black essential workers risking their lives to protect ours and to support themselves and their loved ones during this pandemic.

Who: A 20-something-year-old Black American woman. She lives in New York, NY in a home with her mother and two adult brothers. When asked to disclose any preexisting medical conditions that might put her at a higher risk for more severe complications from COVID-19, she listed “obese, anemic, and have anxiety attacks.”

Essential Job: Security guard at a homeless prevention center run by “a large NYC non profit.” She’s had this job for two years and three months.

Location: Harlem, NY

Work schedule: Her work schedule was cut down to two days a week because of the pandemic. She leaves for work at 7:30AM and her workday ends at 5PM.

“I’m one of two security guards at an office building that usually houses 30 staff members. Because of the pandemic, the office staff now only comes in on Wednesdays during one of three shifts for about two hours at a time. They work from home the rest of the time.

Individuals come to our site seeking help because they are facing some sort of housing crisis. We call them clients. There was a mandate that office staff are no longer allowed to interact with clients in-person, but the receptionist and security guards still do. Because even though the clients aren't allowed to sit in the lobby area anymore, the other guard and I still need to open the door to speak with them and also collect documents, make copies, and give follow up information. I used to be really happy and friendly with the clients, but now I'm straight to the point. Not rude, but not as comforting as before either.

We serve a majority Latino community, but neither I nor the other guard (who is also black and non-Hispanic) speaks Spanish. The inability for effective communication in last couple of weeks has made the people very upset, aggressive, and resentful. People have cursed me out while others have had breakdowns right in front of the doors.”

“We were given a hodgepodge mix of masks and gloves…”

“Security guard work is all about detecting and deterring. Wearing the uniform is 75% of the job; it gives you the authority. But in these times, that doesn't apply. We are now doubling as administrators, relaying messages, collecting documents, and making files. The media only mentions doctors and nurses when talking about essential workers, but my job is also essential right now. It's light work physically, but mentally, with all of my anxiety around becoming infected, I have to constantly pull myself together and stop myself from breaking down in tears.”

“Our job didn’t give us any personal protective equipment until about two weeks ago when we were given a hodgepodge mix of masks and gloves. At the same time, I feel like I'm drowning when I'm wearing a mask in the office and like I'm waterboarding myself during the hour and 15-minute long train ride to work and home. I've all but given up on the gloves. I feel like my skin is crawling once the sweat starts to build up inside them. I used to wash my hands more than average amount before this epidemic. Now, with the anxiety of the situation, I've washed my hands raw.”

“I’ve been having anxiety attacks about riding public transportation…”

“I am the lead security guard and make [a little under $20] an hour. The other guard, the receptionist, and the maintenance staff all make $1.50 less than me. Our daily shifts were also cut down to only two days a week because of the pandemic. The company finally decided that security and maintenance would still received pay for the other three days we were not in the office, but now there’s no overtime work available at all and I really counted on those extra 20+ hours to feel comfortable financially.

So the guards, receptionist, and maintenance staff are the lowest paid staff members at my job and now — because of our twice-a-week work commute and on-site interactions with clients — we’re the only ones with COVID-19 exposure risks. We’ve see about 15 clients every Wednesday for the last five weeks, so it’s possible I've interacted with asymptomatic clients. If I allow myself to think about it in detail, I get angry and sad. I’m risking my health because of my fear of what will happen to me without money.

My co-workers and I did express some of our concerns about the cut in hours. But the executive director and business manager both said that if our office goes completely remote, the security and maintenance staff would be transferred to the shelter branch of the company, which has much more client interaction and a possibly higher potential of becoming infected. I felt it was like a threat, like they were saying, ‘Shut up about your two day work schedule or we can make your life so much worse.’” I'm usually not one to bite my tongue, but I did so that I could keep my job.”

“Between having to take the subway to work twice a week and living with two adult brothers who refuse to say in the house, I feel like I have a high chance of getting the infection. I also live with my mother who is susceptible to upper repository infections. I’ve been having anxiety attacks about riding public transportation and not knowing if I'll be transferred to another more vulnerable work site. So much scares me. The possibility of losing my income. People being asymptomatic. Dying alone without family to comfort you. Misinformation. The fact that there is no specific end to this.”

“I have fear in my heart and it has frozen my tongue and my feet.”

“Classism is real. Our white executive director has not been in the office for the past six weeks, has not asked how any of us are holding up, and has not emailed us to say thank you. Nothing! I feel betrayed. I use to love my position and the people I work with. Now I’m resentful of the protection some people are afforded while others, like myself, are sent out to to the front lines.

I remember how brokenhearted I felt when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and my employer at the time (different from my current job) demanded that I find a way to get to work or lose my position. I never thought I'd feel that low again, but here we are.

I continue going to work because it's easier to bite my tongue while having a job than to speak my mind and risk losing my job during a pandemic. I know the slave conditioning has worked on me. I have fear in my heart and it has frozen my tongue and my feet.”

More from the Essential & Black series:

A Pharmacy Technician In Rochester, NY Who Lives Paycheck to Paycheck


Do you live in public housing? How has the pandemic impacted your building, your neighbors, and your quality of life as a tenant? Would you like to share your story and have your experience amplified?

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Thank you to Clay Williams of Black Food Folks and TK in the AM morning show hosts Tasty Keish and Conscious for having me on your platforms to talk about the newsletter. I appreciate the support!

And thank you to everyone who’s subscribed to the newsletter in the past week and everyone who’s been rocking with me since the April 15 launch. We’re currently at 900+ subscribers and counting.

It’s hella encouraging to see that so many people are invested in and concerned about where, why, and how the coronavirus disease and pandemic is impacting Black communities around the world. Please keep sharing the newsletter with friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances so our stories, reports, and experiences don’t slip through the cracks.

Stay safe and take care ✊🏿💗

Patrice Peck

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