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Strikes call attention to tough conditions for low-wage workers

Security officers including Keven Adams (center left) rallied outside City Hall last week and are preparing for possible strike.

To qualify for his job as a security officer, Jerry Longoria had to obtain a license, undergo a background check, and take a drug test. He's required to wear a suit to work. He's stationed at a downtown San Francisco high rise that houses Deloitte, a multinational consulting, finance, and real-estate firm that reported $31.3 billion in revenues last year. His employer is Universal Protection Services, a nationwide security contractor with a slick online marketing pitch emphasizing that all guards are "electronically supervised around the clock," and "kept accountable on the job through our 24-hour command center."

If an intruder showed up at his office building brandishing a firearm, it would be Longoria's problem; that's the job. Nevertheless, he says he doesn't earn enough to cover rent for an apartment in San Francisco. Instead, he stays in a single room occupancy hotel near Sixth and Mission streets, an area known for a high rate of violent crime. Walking home still wearing the suit makes him stand out on the street.

He's lived in the 150-unit building, which has shared bathrooms and a shared basement-level kitchen, for 11 years. "It's affordable for me, and it allows me to be closer to work," he explains. He can't afford a car, and says a public transit delay could prove disastrous if he relocated outside the city. "If you're late to your post, you get fired."

At press time, about 7,000 security officers throughout the Bay Area and Los Angeles were gearing up for a strike that could begin any day. Members of United Service Workers West, affiliated with Service Employees International Union, authorized their bargaining committee to call for the work stoppage because officers have been without a contract since the end of 2012.

The starting wage for a security officer is $14 an hour in the city, which comes to slightly more than $29,000 a year before taxes. In some places that would be sufficient to meet basic needs. In San Francisco, where the median market rate on rental units recently peaked above $3,000 a month, it doesn't go very far. "With the cost of living here in San Francisco, $14 an hour is simply not enough to make ends meet," Kevin O'Donnell, a USWW spokesperson, told us.

The security officers' threats to strike coincided with a second worker action in the Bay Area last week. Despite lacking any form of union representation, Walmart associates from stores in Richmond, Fremont, and San Leandro affiliated with the nationwide organization OUR Walmart joined 100 employees from across the country in walking off the job and caravanning to Bentonville, Arkansas to raise awareness about their poverty-level wages and insufficient benefits at Walmart's annual shareholders' meeting. But first, they paid a visit to the Four Seasons in downtown San Francisco, which houses the 38th floor penthouse apartment of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, a Walmart director.

Despite seeking full-time working opportunities and staying with the company for years, a handful of associates we interviewed said they can't earn enough at Walmart to cover basic needs, so they rely on government assistance or help from extended family to make ends meet. Some said they had witnessed their coworkers get fired after participating in OUR Walmart activities.

Walmart associates in the Bay Area are in a considerably more precarious situation than the security officers, earning lower hourly wages. But in the pricey Bay Area, security officers, Walmart employees, and scores of other low-wage private sector workers all share something in common. Despite reporting to work every day and working long hours in many cases, they're forced into impoverished conditions due to economic circumstances, while a middle-class existence remains far out of reach.

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