Security guards are often the pointy end of the stick for COVID-19 control measures. They’re the ones monitoring for masks and distanced lineups at grocery stores and pharmacies, controlling access to care homes and hospitals, taking temperatures at front desks, even moving dead patients from morgues.
Through this, security workers say they are paying a high price from increasing public unease and anxiety — with assaults, abuse and threats — while getting no help with priority access to vaccinations.
“Being on the front lines, a lot of people talk about the clerks at the grocery stores, delivery, medical, police — absolutely every one of them is an unsung hero, there is no question,” said Paul Katerenchuk, president of Synergy Protection Group Inc., a Toronto-based security firm.
“But security guards get overlooked. We are essentially at the front of the front line — before you get into the hospital, into that store, into that bank, nine times out of 10, there is security there, playing the role of enforcement, crowd control, health and safety compliance, and engagement with the crowds.”
Working from home isn’t an option for on-site guards.
“It has been a challenge,” he said.
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Concern over the exposure of security workers to COVID-19 while interacting so intimately with the public is real.
A British study examining COVID-19 deaths by occupation, published in January, found that front line security workers had one of the highest death rates, second only to processing-plant workers.
There have been efforts to get security guards higher up the list of vaccine priority, but no one seems to be listening, said Jeff Ketelaars, secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union Local 333, a union for security guards in Ontario.
“Security guards have been on the front lines of the pandemic from the start,” and should be a vaccination priority, he said. Guards work at many essential facilities during the pandemic, from hospitals to construction sites, and in low-income housing communities and at the gates of luxury condos, he said.
“Many people do not realize that a guard could be working at a hospital today, doing a psychiatric patient watch, and then at a condominium tomorrow. Security guards do not work in one place all the time. A mobile patrol guard could be at multiple hospitals and malls, grocery stores, and hotels in one 12-hour shift,” Ketelaars said.
Hospitals often vaccinate guards working in their facilities, but it is because some hospitals insist, not the because the government orders it, and not every hospital does; guards at federal immigration detention centres also get vaccinated because the facilities arrange it, Ketelaars said.
The union has asked for expedited status for guards but has not received a response from the Ontario government, he said.
“Doug Ford promised he would put security guards at all long-term care homes; however, he never said he would vaccinate them,” said Ketelaars.
The province’s vaccine rollout accounts for security guards who cannot work from home as a secondary priority within Phase 2, said David Jensen, a spokesman for the province’s Ministry of Health.
“Ontario’s three-phased COVID-19 vaccination plan prioritizes vaccines for those at greatest risk of severe illness and those who care for them,” Jensen said in a statement.
Security guards in other provinces face a similar problem.
William Dressyman, a protective services site supervisor in Edmonton, supports a push for guard vaccination being a priority.
“We are posted at a government site that deals with the public daily. We have around 1,000 workers in the building and anywhere between 800 to 900 public visiting. I have seen the change in people and the stress and frustration it has caused on the security team here. We are constantly having issues with people regarding wearing masks, social distancing and following basic rules,” Dressyman said.
“It is a tough environment to work in, as the pay is usually low and little respect is given.”
Quebec, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Atlantic provinces have not given expedited access to vaccination for security guards either, the union says.
Meanwhile, security guards are working around the clock, said Katerenchuk, the Ontario security executive.
“There is a lot of feedback from the field staff talking about the nature of people under a lot of stress, mental fatigue. People are losing jobs, losing family, everyone is on edge and sometimes, when they get out in these public places, they can lose it.
“Security is generally that first line they see.”
Everyone is on edge; when they get out in public places, they can lose itPaul Katerenchuk, Synergy Protection
Tom Doyle, a manager with Synergy, said those unhappy with restrictions often take out their frustration on street-level security workers, with confrontations, abuse, death threats and occasionally assaults. Other times security faces disputes between others.
Recently, one of Doyle’s colleagues supervising a line outside a pharmacy witnessed two customers discuss different views on adequate social distancing. It escalated quickly. A young security guard approached to intervene.
“One was so aggravated he pushed the young security guard. She ended up quitting,” Doyle said.
Another guard at a discount store asked a customer to wear a face mask but the customer refused, Doyle said. The customer started making a scene while refusing to mask up or leave. The guard put his hand on the man’s shoulder to guide him toward an exit and the customer started screaming that he was being assaulted.
Doyle isn’t impressed.
“It’s really blown up over the past year. The pandemic is affecting everyone,” he said.
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