Homeless shelter security officers in Bronx rally to demand COVID-19 protections

Homeless shelter security officers and members of Local 32BJ are demanding COVID-19 protections for workers at Acacia Network.
Dean Moses

Homeless shelter security officers and members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union rallied Monday for greater COVID-19 protections on the one-year anniversary of the virus’ official arrival in New York City.

The attendees made a vociferous scene outside the Bronx’s Acacia Network corporate office on Monday afternoon, with chants audible from blocks away. Over 30 individuals wielded signs in protest of what they say have been lax safety measures which has resulted in the death of at least one security officer.

This action is the culmination of a year-long battle calling for greater protection from the deadly virus, something they say they have not received despite caring for some of the city’s most vulnerable in homelessness shelters throughout New York.

Workers say the Acacia Network has failed to meet multiple CDC standards. Some of the complaints include lack of PPE, such as masks and hand sanitizer, while also working under what they cite as dangerous conditions due to the lack of social distancing.

According to local 32BJ union leaders, many of those who live in Acacia Network run shelters are left unchallenged for not wearing masks and employees have not received training on how to correctly screen occupants.

The crowd admonished Acacia Network, yelling “Essential workers are under attack” and “We are not expendable” while also brandishing gigantic cardboard masks and gloves. Protesters also wore masks displaying the number 365, showcasing the amount of days they have been fighting for the Acacia Network to meet the CDC guidelines in order to keep essential workers secure from COVID-19.

The rally gathered to hand-deliver a letter addressed to Raul Russi, the president & CEO of Acacia Network regarding their complaints, but first speakers shared stories from their unconventional work year.

Homeless shelter security officers and members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union wore masks with the number “365” to signify their year-long battle against COVID-19. Photo by Dean Moses

“We are forced to work in conditions where clients are walking around without masks, putting our lives at risk. Sometimes we don’t have any hand sanitizer and no protective gear. We are exposed to danger day by day. We are forced to work long shifts with no protection. People are tested positive for COVID and they remain around us. We are asking that Acacia do something to improve the situation,” Irving James, a security officer said.

The group also bowed their heads in a moment of silence in a show of solemn respect for the loss of Michelle Pierre Lewis, an Acacia security officer who succumbed to COVID-19 related complications, something they feel could have been avoided if the proper protections were in place. Ron Wade a 32BJ executive member with the union has spent recent weeks speaking with those working under these conditions and says he is appalled.

A protester chanted, “Essential workers are under attack!” Photo by Dean Moses

“We are here to support these brothers and sisters in their fight for better conditions at these shelters. For 365 days a year they have been here on the front lines of COVID doing what they are supposed to do, yet Acacia has neglected to take care of these workers. These workers are here to protect these shelters, why won’t you protect them? Why do they have to get up and fight against COVID-19 you don’t acknowledge it is real?” Wade said in disbelief.

In response to these accusations, a representative from Acacia Network stated that contrary to the protesters’ remarks, the company takes their staff and clients’ safety very serious and that they have followed CDC protocols.

“At Acacia Network Housing, the health and safety of our staff and clients are our top priority. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have implemented and ensured compliance with proper health and safety guidelines, including the provision of sufficient PPE at our facilities and proper guidance on their use. Since Acacia Network began administering COVID-19 vaccinations to eligible individuals –including frontline workers– at our primary care clinics, we have offered to vaccinate staff from our homeless shelters, including security guards. We take all concerns raised by employees seriously, and promptly address them,” said Gabriela Gonzalez, Director of Communications for Acacia Network.

The rally culminated with four participants handing in a letter to the President & CEO of Acacia Network, Raul Russi.

Protesters addressed a letter to the CEO of Acacia Network regarding the unfit working conditions. Photo by Dean Moses

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