Like many essential workers, I have been going to work this past year, knowing that every day I risked being exposed to the coronavirus at the homeless shelter I work in or as I commute on public transportation. Even though I have two stents in my chest and high blood pressure, I knew I had to continue going to work to continue to pay my bills.
Throughout 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the city I call home, with so many New Yorkers losing their lives and the shelter system being hit particularly hard. Every day, I went to work as a shelter security officer worrying about contracting the virus and potentially bringing it home to my brother or my elderly father. Even when I was feeling sick, I didn’t have any paid days off to use. Not having days off meant that I had to constantly choose between taking care of my health and putting food on the table.
Shortly after I started feeling ill, on April 2, 2020, my father was hospitalized. On April 6, I received a phone call notifying me that my father had passed away. When I took unpaid time off to facilitate his services, my employer continued to call me, asking when I would be able to come back to work. That’s because many of New York City’s homeless shelters, including the one where I work, are severely understaffed.
Our city is taking special efforts to reduce homelessness, improve the standards of the City’s shelter system and expand access to permanent affordable housing. Good paying, high-quality jobs for shelter security officers must be part of the picture. Better job standards can improve turnover rates, and support workforce continuity and the retention of site-specific knowledge, while comprehensive training can promote the adherence to safety protocols.
With the SOS Act (The Safety in Our Shelters Act, Intros 1995/2006) we have an opportunity to make this a reality.
The bills that make up the SOS Act, introduced by Council Members Francisco Moya and Diana Ayala, would raise the standards for workers like me to ensure that privately-run shelters are providing decent wages, benefits, and training opportunities to security workers.
If we can raise the standards at privately-run shelters across the city, we can make sure that security officers like me can provide for our families, and have the healthcare, time off, and training we need to keep ourselves safe and better serve New York’s most vulnerable.
Taking steps to turn private shelter jobs into family-sustaining, good jobs would mean that thousands of majority Black, Brown, and immigrant security officers can not only make ends meet, but lift up our communities as we look to recover from the devastations of COVID-19.
I ask the City Council to pass these bills as soon as possible. As the City Council and Speaker Corey Johnson continue their strong record of standing up for working people, we can continue to be there for our city.
Leonard Bell is a homeless shelter security officer in New York City.