The minimum wage for security guards has been frozen for years despite the previous government’s instituting special remuneration more than two dollars above Manitoba’s general minimum wage.
As a government under a new Progressive Conservative leader looms, the union representing private security guards is asking the two Tory leadership candidates to commit to those minimum wage increases.
"When you hear about the anti-vaxxers, you hear about the anti-maskers, the people who believe that COVID is made up — they’re taking it out on the first person who tries to enforce the public health orders, which is quite often the security guard," United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 834 president Jeff Traeger said.
"They’re getting the brunt of that anger, and in some cases, they’re being attacked violently."
The NDP government enacted a plan in 2014 to raise security guards’ minimum wages from $11 to $13.25 over four years, starting with a $0.25 increase that year, a $0.50 increase in 2015 and $0.75 increases in the final two years.
After Brian Pallister’s PC government was elected in 2016, union representatives and business managers met to discuss the wage hikes and made a joint recommendation to continue the increases and fix security guards’ minimum wage at $2.25 above regular minimum wage, Traeger said.
"We sent that to the minister (of finance), and the minister informed us that they were going to ignore it," he said. "They had never rejected a consensus recommendation."
Security guards never received the fourth wage bump they were set to receive on Oct. 1, 2017. Their wages have remained frozen at $12.50 per hour, which is $0.55 above the provincial current minimum wage of $11.95.
Had the increases remained, guards would be making approximately $14.20 per hour now, though the union expects the wage freeze will remain in place — unless the incoming premier commits to action.
"It stabilized an industry, it gave recognition to people who are taking on more and more responsibility — especially during COVID — and no one was against it except Brian Pallister," Traeger said. "Security guards deserve it because their wages simply don’t reflect the expectations and responsibilities placed on them."
While security is usually meant to be a visual deterrent to crime, acting as the "eyes and ears" for the companies who hire them, more recently the work has resulted in increased stress and risk as security guards have become businesses’ first line of defence for upholding COVID-19 regulations.
One unionized security guard in Winkler anecdotally reported nearly 50 people per shift would enter the grocery store they guarded without a mask, in contravention of the store’s rules, Traeger said.
"We’ve heard the same things from security guards downtown, in the office buildings, the malls, the businesses on Portage Avenue, that this is a regular, daily occurrence," he said. "They go to work every day knowing they’re going to get yelled at, they’re going to get pushed out of the way, knowing that they’re not going to be listened to."
In an industry already suffering from high turnover (to the tune of nearly 25 percent annually in pre-COVID times), the turnover has only gotten worse, pushing companies to recruit new hires from among newcomers and other vulnerable communities.
"Employers that are looking to pay low wages, no benefits, no pension to keep their labour costs down and offer their clients a better rate end up going into these communities, and it becomes a cycle of poverty," Traeger said.
The meagre wages have translated to financial insecurity for many Manitobans in search of work. Traeger noted about a third of its 2,000 security guard members work two jobs to make ends meet, while most others give more than 40 hours weekly to make up the gaps.
Traeger said neither Shelly Glover nor Heather Stefanson have responded to the union’s requests to commit to gradual wage increases for security guards.
Neither candidate’s campaign office responded to Free Press requests for comment.
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.