GWB guards say harsh working conditions hurt security
The men and women employed as unarmed security guards at the George Washington Bridge, the busiest span in the world and a prime terror target that connects New Jersey and New York, say dangerous and unsanitary conditions threaten their work — and the bridge. Wochit
One guard was almost hit by a suicide jumper falling from 200 feet above.
Another was told to wear an adult diaper after complaining about working too far from a restroom.
A third guard, working the night shift in a secluded park, locked herself in her booth because she felt threatened by a group of men loitering nearby.
Those challenges and others are part of the daily routine, say the men and women employed as unarmed security guards to watch for and report suspicious activity at the George Washington Bridge, the busiest span in the world and a prime terror target that connects New Jersey and New York.
At a time when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warns about the “growing threat” of terrorism at the region’s transportation and infrastructure assets, guards and security professionals say poor working conditions at the bridge interfere with their job of keeping the region’s commuters safe. A shooting that took the lives of several people at the Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida on Friday put into stark relief the need to secure transportation facilities.
With about 100 million vehicles crossing the George Washington Bridge each year, if attackers were to disable or destroy it, millions of people would be forced to take detours of one hour or longer, putting additional strain on the region’s existing bridges and tunnels. The effect could be devastating for the regional economy as well as for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which relies upon the bridge to generate a large share of its income. The agency projects operating income at the bridge this year of $633 million — more than 20 percent of its $3.1 billion operating budget.
The private security guards, who work for Summit Security Services, help to guard the bridge not only from terrorist attacks, but also work to prevent suicides. Summit also has guards at the PATH rail system that links North Jersey with New York City, the Bayonne and Goethals bridges, the Holland Tunnel and several Port Authority office buildings. They number about 400 across all the Port Authority facilities.
Eight current and former guards at the bridge — six men and two women — spoke to The Record on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from Summit and, in some cases, from their own union. Some had worked in security all their lives. At least half worked at the bridge for more than five years. Several said that simply complaining to a supervisor is enough to provoke retaliation.
“You complain and you lose your job,” said one current guard.
Among their concerns:
- Security vehicles are poorly maintained and some equipment is faulty. Hand-held radios, for example, are sometimes held together with tape.
- Unlike police officers, who patrol in pairs, the guards said they are on their own, often patrolling unlit, secluded areas armed only with a radio to call for help.
- There is limited access to restrooms and guards have had to resort to other means for relief.
- Objects, including people jumping from the bridge, sometimes fall near their guard booths or where they patrol.
- The 30-square-foot security booths (about 5-by-6-feet) often lack proper heating in the winter or cooling in the summer.
John Cohen, a former counter terrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security, said that having highly-trained police officers and well-equipped security personnel at sites is “critically important.”
“The value that comes from employing additional police officers and security personnel is in part influenced by how well they are trained, how qualified they are to be in those positions, how well they are equipped — and all that plays a role in ensuring that they are a productive part of the security apparatus used to protect locations like the George Washington Bridge.”
Working conditions can hamper the ability of anyone – whether uniformed officer or security guard – tasked with protecting the public.
“It seems to me to be self evident that if people’s work conditions are horrible and degrading they tend not to be very good at the function they are assigned,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department terrorism coordinator who hasn’t assessed the situation at the bridge, but spoke in general terms about the importance of keeping security personnel focused on their duties.
The guards earn between $32,000 and $35,000. Port Authority Police officers, by contrast, are among the highest paid in the region, with officers typically earning $108,000 after six years of service, in addition to generous benefits and a pension.
Still, the unarmed guards are considered a critical part of security for the agency, said John Bilich, the agency’s deputy chief security officer. While the higher-paid and better-trained police officers perform more demanding work, Bilich said the guards’ principal role is to “observe and report.”
Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said that because of a lack of resources, agencies often cut costs, particularly at infrastructure assets.
“I don’t see them looking for the best equipped and the best trained security guards,” Haberfeld said.
Haberfeld, who trains New York Police Department officers in counterterrorism, said that the Port Authority puts most of its security resources into its airports, bus terminals and the PATH rail system.
That makes sense because these areas are highly trafficked by pedestrians and are perceived as softer targets than a bridge, which can be difficult to monitor as well as to escape from should a terrorist wish to do so. But, Haberfeld said, the very fact that the bridge does not receive the same amount of attention, makes it more vulnerable.
“I can assure you, if tomorrow there is an attack on a major bridge in London, you are going to see a major deployment on the George Washington Bridge,” Haberfeld said. “We always react to the last war.”
Indeed, after Friday’s attack in Ft. Lauderdale, security was increased at Port Authority airports, officials said.
The Port Authority’s director of security operations, Mike DeGidio, said the agency has a vested interest in making sure guards are happy because it ensures that they perform their duties well. But DeGidio said the agency is unaware of any concerns about work conditions at the bridge.
He said that Summit meets frequently with Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union to talk about guards’ work conditions.
“We have not gotten any complaints or concerns about their safety,” DeGidio said.
The guards told a different story.
In addition to fears of falling bodies and a lack of proper access to bathrooms, guards said that their vehicles were often in a state of poor repair. They cited dirty cars that would shut down without warning, vehicles driven with warning lights illuminated, and one vehicle in which the rubber top on the brake pedal was missing making it easy for a person’s foot to slip off the brake.
“I’ve never seen a company that is so reckless,” said one veteran guard referring to Summit, a Long Island-based firm with revenues of $147 million in 2015, which calls itself one of the largest privately held security contractors in the country. According to Summit’s website, the firm provides security and investigative services to hundreds of companies and government agencies across the country, including armed guard services for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and fraud investigations for state and city governments.
Another veteran guard, who was put in touch with The Record by his union to provide a counterpoint to the criticisms, did not deny the work environment at the bridge was difficult. But he said that his colleagues should stop complaining.
“I am a person who likes a challenge,” he said.
Since 9/11, the Port Authority has spent more than $1 billion shoring up its defenses. Annually, security accounts for almost one-quarter of the agency’s operating budget. This year, security costs are expected to reach $707 million.
The agency employs 1,800 police officers who are supported by an additional 1,000 unarmed guards.
As terrorism shifts towards a rise in attacks by people acting independently of terrorist organizations, private guards are becoming an increasingly important part of security.
“Parts of our critical infrastructure, including seaports, airports and even bridges that have a high concentration of motor vehicle traffic are all potential targets in this new age we find ourselves in,” Cohen said.
Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers School of Criminal Justice, said traditional counterterrorism capabilities are not designed to detect this new brand of terrorist. So the role of police officers and private security guards becomes even more important.
Cohen said a highly visible security presence, including unarmed officers, can deter attackers conducting surveillance.
But the use of private contractors is not always successful.
Summit’s predecessors, FJC Security, lost a similar contract following several security slips, including employing an illegal immigrant who had assumed a murdered man’s identity, as a Newark airport supervisor, and allowing three parachutists to jump from the top of 1 World Trade Center.
This video was filmed by parachutists who jumped from 1 World Trade Center in September 2013.
Just two months after Summit took over the contract, in May 2014, a thrill-seeking teenager from Weehawken got past several Summit guards and climbed to the top of 1 World Trade Center. In response, the Port Authority gave the trade center contract to another security firm and reduced Summit’s contract by $37 million.
Although private guards have had their share of lapses — two guards at the George Washington Bridge were fired in 2009 after being caught sleeping on the job — the Port Authority Police Department is not immune from criticism.
Last month, the Port Authority filed disciplinary charges against one-third of the PATH rail system’s police force — 44 officers — who were accused of taking hours-long breaks when they were supposed to be patrolling stations.
Daniel Sepulveda, Summit’s vice president of security, declined to answer questions regarding when Summit began its work with the Port Authority, how many employees work for the agency or at the George Washington Bridge, or when the most recent contract was signed, citing “safety and security” reasons.
Regarding working conditions cited by the guards, including concerns over falling objects and lack of bathroom access, Sepulveda said:
“Three years ago we were contacted by [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] because a claim was submitted at the GWB site. Summit cooperated fully with the investigation of the allegations, and the fine was substantially reduced. None of the conditions you refer to existed, then or now.”
Sepulveda also suggested that guards with complaints consult their collective bargaining agreement for answers.
Guards, who pay about $60 a month in union dues, say that Local 32BJ has failed to protect them from harassment, deal with grievances quickly or take their complaints seriously. They say that it took the union about two years to resolve an issue over unpaid vacation from 2014.
“It’s like the Boston Tea Party,” said one guard. “You are being taxed, but you have no representation.”
Of the 48 guards who have worked the site over the last three years, 10 have been fired, according to a spokeswoman for Local 32BJ, who called the rate “slightly above average.”
Six guards were reinstated after the union intervened.
One guard filed a charge against Local 32BJ with the National Labor Relations Board in December 2015, alleging that the union breached its duty of fair representation by failing to process grievances related to unused vacation pay, vehicle safety, harassment and overtime.
The NLRB dismissed the complaint in March 2016, finding that the union had taken some actions related to the complaints and that the guard failed to provide evidence that the union “acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner.”
Union official Kevin Brown, who helped unionize the guards about 10 years ago, denied many of the allegations, emphasizing that guards do not complain about pay and benefits because the union has helped them achieve better levels of both. The guards earn $17 an hour.
Brown added that before the guards unionized there were no relief guards provided for bathroom breaks.
“Workers had to [urinate] into a paper bag in the booth,” Brown said. (A guard said Brown was only half right. He said that guards used paper bags for solid waste.)
“The bottom line is this is still a good job and it wouldn’t be a good job if it wasn’t for all the things we’ve done there,” Brown said.
The union directed The Record to speak to a current guard at the bridge, who said some of his colleagues “exaggerate a lot of things.”
The guard, a longtime employee who did not wish to be identified because he, too, feared retaliation from Summit, said that people jumping off the bridge and landing in the parks is rare, happening only once a year at most.
“The problem is,” the guard added, “some people, they complain for everything.”
One female guard who spoke to The Record said she was sick of complaining.
When she was regularly posted in a desolate spot during the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, she often called a Port Authority supervisor to report groups of men congregating in the park, which was supposed to be closed overnight.
Sometimes the supervisor would send out a Port Authority police patrol to check it out. But mostly, she said, she was left on her own.
She soon learned that when she saw a group of men overnight, the only thing to do was to lock herself in her booth and wait for them to leave. Sometimes, she waited hours before she could resume her patrols.
“I just don’t feel safe,” the security guard said.