Security Guards at Playhouse Square and other Downtown Properties Want to Form a Union

Officers with Royce Security get no raises, no paid time off

click to enlarge Playhouse Square chandelier in all its glory. - Jeff Niesel
Jeff Niesel
Playhouse Square chandelier in all its glory.

Thursday afternoon, Service Employees International Union Local 1 (SEIU Local 1) will hold a rally and press conference outside Playhouse Square in support of downtown security guards.

The local union, which represents janitorial workers and other service employees, wants to apply pressure on Playhouse Square and other buildings downtown that utilize Royce Security, a firm that SEIU calls "irresponsible" for a history of wage theft and its refusal to provide fair wages and benefits to security officers during the pandemic. SEIU Local 1 believes that the security officers working for Royce, just like all workers, have a right to organize a union.

For weeks, SEIU says, they've attempted to contact Playhouse Square in the hopes of working cooperatively to improve the quality of life for the guards at the historic theater complex on Euclid Avenue. (Playhouse Square could, among other things, threaten to switch contractors to pressure Royce into better behavior.)  But Playhouse Square has been unresponsive.

Playhouse Square's top executive, Gina Vernaci, incidentally, made just under $500,000 in total compensation in 2020, according to a recently published Crain's Cleveland Business list. She made $660,000 the previous year. Royce security officers at Playhouse Square make $13/hour.

Yanela Sims, SEIU Local 1 Ohio Director, said that these security officers have worked tirelessly and often amidst uncertain circumstances throughout the pandemic to provide high-quality service at the downtown buildings where Royce is contracted: Playhouse Square, the AECOM Building at St. Clair and E. 9th, and the United Way of Greater Cleveland building a few blocks east of Playhouse Square on Euclid.

"It is unconscionable that these essential workers continue to ensure tenants, residents and this community remain safe and secure, yet they lack fair wages and benefits that allow them to do the same for their own families," Sims said in a statement. "These workers deserve a voice on the job—they deserve a fair process for union recognition."

Reached by phone, Joe Conway, the President and CEO of Royce Security, told Scene that he had no comment on the unionization efforts, but said that as a company, Royce met and exceeded industry standards for pay and benefits.

"I'm very confident that we exceed standards in how we treat our people," Conway said. "And that's evident by the longevity of many of our security officers."

Melvin Barnes, Jr., 43, has been a security officer at the AECOM Building, (formerly the Penton Media Building), for 17 years and has worked under four contractors there.  He said that while he made a lower hourly wage when he first started, he has less money now than he did then, given that inflation has been "in hyperdrive" and his wages haven't kept pace with the cost of living.

"I'm not saying I should make as much as an engineer," Barnes told Scene Wednesday. "And I don't want to say I'm suffering, but I feel that I'm struggling unnecessarily. I work a full-time job. I should be paid a dignified wage."

Barnes said that virtually an entire paycheck is required to cover his rent, and that his other monthly paycheck must cover the rest of his expenses: food, insurance, phone, internet, incidentals.  He lives downtown and said he's grateful he lives close enough to walk to the AECOM Building, where he works third shift. If he had to pay for a monthly bus pass, he said, (to say nothing of a personal vehicle), he'd be forced to find additional work to cover the cost.

Increased wages are the most obvious benefit that Barnes cited when asked about the appeal of forming a union, but he said paid time off, including sick time and bereavement leave, were also important to him. Twice during the pandemic, he said, he had to travel to New Orleans, where he was born and raised, for funeral services for family members. He was so over budget that he had to borrow money for the second trip.

"There's no PTO at Royce," Barnes said. "You work your hours and you collect your check. And since they've been [the contractor at the AECOM Building] there hasn't been a whisper, I mean not even a smoke signal, of a raise."

Brian Norman, 50, has worked security for more than 20 years and has been at the AECOM Building for just over four. He said that during the pandemic, the workload has gone up while the benefits have gone down. And switching to Royce from the previous contractor, he said, "was a real curveball."

"They don't even do direct deposit," he said. 

Norman takes pride in his work and the many hats security officers must wear on the job: not only serving as a physical deterrent to intruders and potential criminal activity, but as a greeter and customer service worker, a trouble shooter, and even a technician. Norman said he has been certified in Microsoft Office and that if the building's power goes off, he is regularly called to check on electric locks and other systems.

"You need quality, responsible people in these jobs," he said. "But if you pay any old type of wage, you're going to get any old type of person."

Both Barnes and Norman stressed that security guards, much like janitors, fast food workers and other service industry employees, are often regarded as losers and deadbeats. But in spite of the disrespect they've received, not least the disrespect inherent in their compensation, they said they work hard and honestly and deserve basic accommodations like vacation time and raises.

"This isn't about trying to get something for nothing," Barnes said. "This is about being treated with dignity."

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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