One Sunday last May, Karmen Kolda arrived early for his 11 a.m. shift as a security guard at a medical marijuana dispensary southeast of downtown San Jose. He’d made the 30-mile commute from his home in San Mateo wearing his usual all-black gear, with “SECURITY” printed on the back of his shirt. Kolda, who’s employed by Genesis Private Security in San Jose, spent the day checking IDs and reminding customers to stay 6 feet apart and wear face masks. A little after 3 p.m., he heard a commotion. A man without a face covering was yelling at a clerk who’d asked that he put one on. Kolda stepped in and told the man to calm down or get out. The customer got in his face, cursed at him, and shoved him hard in the chest, sending Kolda—5 feet 9 inches, 190 pounds—into a display case. The attacker fled, and staff called the police.
After four days in the hospital with a fractured vertebra, Kolda went home. He says he spent three months partially confined to a recliner and had to sleep on his side to relieve his back pain. It wasn’t until Labor Day that he could even move around without a walker. His doctor told him the injuries could have been worse had he not been wearing the ballistic vest his wife got him for Christmas. “Most security officers are really nice,” says Kolda, 49, who’s been in the industry since leaving the Army in 1994. “We’re trying to survive through this pandemic as well.”
It’s hard to know how many of the industry’s roughly 1.2 million employees have faced anything like what Kolda did. There are no national numbers on incidents involving guards trying to enforce pandemic protocols. But there have been reports of violence across the country. Two days before Kolda’s back was broken, Calvin Munerlyn, a guard at a Family Dollar in Flint, Mich., told a customer to leave because her daughter wasn’t wearing a mask. They argued, and the woman left, returning with two men to confront him 20 minutes later. One-shot Munerlyn in the back of the head, police said, killing him. The three were charged with first-degree murder.
In July a guard in Gardena, Calif., got into a fight with a maskless man who entered a grocery store while waiting for a tow truck. The guard allegedly shot and killed the man, and he was arrested on murder charges. The next month in St. Louis, three maskless men beat and badly bruised a guard who’d told them to leave a Shell gas station, according to authorities. The guard shot one of the men, who was hospitalized. (The other two fled.) And in December, two men were charged with attempted murder after shooting up a strip club in Anaheim, Calif.; they had been asked to leave for not wearing masks. At least three people were injured, said the district attorney.
It’s also unclear to what extent Covid-19 itself is killing Americans in the profession, because the U.S. doesn’t keep data on this either. In the U.K., however, male security guards die from the disease at some of the highest rates of any job, with 100.7 deaths per 100,000 workers from March to December, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Even though the pandemic has devastated the service economy, security work is now one of the stabler paths to a paycheck. Retailers are spending on guards, despite the economic downturn, to assure compliance with coronavirus safety regulations. The job is often a dull one, performed by contract without benefits, usually for about $15 an hour. In 2019, guards earned a median annual wage of $29,680, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the pandemic era, some jobs now advertise health benefits and above-average wages. Allied Universal Security Services LLC, based in Conshohocken, Pa., says it pays some guards as much as $25 an hour, or $52,000 annually, to ensure it can fill jobs that require certain skills or are in competitive markets.
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