Tonya Yarbrough, a security officer at the Chicago Stock Exchange at 440 South LaSalle St., wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to commute on the Green Line from Englewood to be at work by 7 a.m. in downtown Chicago. She says she feels safer at work than she does at home.
“If I were paid a little bit more maybe I’d be able to make a better life for myself and my family,” she said. “Maybe I could move to a better neighborhood.”
Yarbrough, 42, a born-and-raised Chicagoan and security officer of nine years, makes $12.65 an hour.
“We deserve more for what we do, if people want to break into these buildings, we’re the ones that have to deal with them, not management,” she said, noting that she’s often dealt with violent people while on the job.
A mother of three with three grandchildren under the age of seven, she lives on West 73rd St. and South Ashland Blvd., and says she is constantly scared for the safety of her family. “My six-year-old grandson can’t go outside when he wants to,” she said.
“We work downtown and keep these beautiful buildings safe and then come home to these bad neighborhoods. These companies make so much money and while management is upstairs, we’re the ones down here dealing with these people.”
More than 2,000 of Chicago’s security officers represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 will have their contract expire on April 21. Bargaining with contractors and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) could begin in latch March, and officers are calling for a wage increase.
More than 100 security officers and their supporters gathered for a downtown march and demonstration last week to rally for higher wages.
“Security officers are often first responders on the scene, they’re there before the paramedics or police officers get there and they're saying they deserve higher wages,” said Izabela Miltko, a spokesperson for SEIU. “They do a very important job in Chicago, but they’re not making much in wages.
More than 23 percent, or 629,464 Chicagoans, lived below the poverty level in 2011, which was an annual income of $11,484 for one person, according to the Social IMPACT Research Center. The highest instances of poverty occur on the South and West Sides. In Illinois, 31 percent of African-Americans are in poverty, while only 11 percent of whites lived below the poverty line.
According to the 2009 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, Chicago has the second highest rate of income disparity.
On average, SEIU’s security officers make $10 hourly, or $20,400 annually. Miltko said at most they make slightly more than $12 hourly.
“Majority of our security officers are African-American and they keep these beautiful downtown buildings safe, such as the Board of Trade, but they go home to these neighborhoods where they don’t feel safe at all and higher wages could help that,” she said.
On March 23, SEIU is hosting a convention for the union’s security officers to kick off contract negotiations. The event is aimed at gaining support for security officers during the bargaining process and Miltko said former State Rep. Robin Kelly, Democratic nominee in the special election for Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District, is slated to attend.
“If people had good jobs, maybe there wouldn’t be so much violence in these neighborhoods. When people don’t have a job there’s nothing else for them to do but be on the streets,” said Yarbrough.
“When you don’t have a good income it lowers your morale and makes you feel bad about yourself because you’re not able to provide for yourself and your family,” she said. “Why should I have to be downtown securing these billion dollar buildings, then go back to my neighborhood where people are car-jacking and shooting?”
“I know they can’t pay me what I’m worth, but at least show me that I’m appreciated and compensate me appropriately.”